Taking flight on crop surveillance

Drones offer farmers a number of options in monitoring fields 
but it still doesn’t beat boots on the ground

Far more complex than yesterday’s remote-control planes, the modern-day drone has a lot to offer today’s producer.

“As far as data collection, these are really useful. We are figuring that we can make use of them for a number of things, including determining crop health and monitoring maturity,” said Jeffery Kostuik, diversification specialist with Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation.

Kostuik demonstrated his SenseFly eBee fixed-wing drone at the Westman Agriculture Diversification Organization’s (WADO) field day in Melita on July 21.

The eBee drone has been said to be one of the easiest-to-use mini drone on the market. It is controlled through eMotion, a flight-planning software.

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“The computer does all the work. You set your flight plan of where you want your drone to fly, it does a series of passes and at the same time it is taking pictures and recordings,” said Kostuik.

Throughout flight, the drone captures a number of photos, which are then processed on the connected computer through the supplied Postflight Terra 3D professional photogrammetry software.

Drones present aerial snapshots allowing producers to pinpoint areas of concern in fields caused by weather, pests, nutrient deficiencies and spray drifts. Cattle producers are able to check calves without disturbing the entire herd.

“I am looking forward to using this as flying will give us a different perspective,” said Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist with WADO. “I will be using it for measuring plot length, the biomass index, and elevation mapping, which will allow me to map this entire quarter and know where it is going to drown out or where we are going to have a tough time getting water and that will help us with planning plots.”

Farmers can utilize drones to gain an aerial view of fields, aiding in pinpointing troubled areas and observing cattle without disturbing the entire herd.

Farmers can utilize drones to gain an aerial view of fields, aiding in pinpointing troubled areas and observing cattle without disturbing the entire herd.
photo: Jennifer Paige

The eBee drone can cover up to 12 sq. km in a single flight with a nominal cruise speed of 40 to 90 km an hour. It weighs less than a kilogram with a wingspan of 38 inches and a rear-mounted propeller.

“This will cover about a quarter section in around nine minutes. It has the capability of flying to 2,000 feet and can fly for about 40 to 45 minutes. However, 400 feet is the highest we are legally able to fly for safety reasons,” said Kostuik.

Kostuik also noted that drone operators are required to obtain a Special Flight Operator Certificate through Transport Canada. This can take anywhere from 10 to 20 business days and can require the operator to obtain liability insurance.

Operators must also inform others in the area that may be sharing the air space.

“When using this to monitor crops it is always best to fly perpendicular to the wind, otherwise, if you are flying with the wind the photos are spaced out a bit too far and coming back they will be too close together,” said Kostuik. “Sometimes a hawk or bird will investigate the drone and so they have incorporated a few things into the control software, such as a barrel roll.”

When operating the drone, you must plug the battery into the device on the ground as that is how it determines where ground level is located. Launching the plane is as simple as giving the device three shakes and releasing it.

When landing the drone, the computer will count down to the landing and the plane’s motor will reverse if it feels that it is coming in too quickly.

“I try to fly over my fields weekly, but biweekly for sure, for geo-mapping and yield monitoring. A file from the drone on a quarter section can run around four or five gigabytes. So, you do need a pretty powerful computer to quickly generate that data and a fair amount of storage space,” said Kostuik. “I would recommend an external hard drive to store your photos so that it won’t slow down your computer.”

Kostuik warns that the drone can produce a lot of photos, which can be time consuming to process, however, there are companies such as Precision Hawk and Robo Flight, that offer imagery processing on a cost-per-acre basis.

On the market today there is an ever-expanding variety of drone models with price tags reaching anywhere from $1,000 to more sophisticated models that can be tens of thousands.

While drones can give you an eye in the sky and excellent records of your fields, Kostuik advises not getting rid of your agronomist just yet.

“These are absolutely great tools but they certainly don’t beat boots on the ground,” said Kostuik. “It may be able to show you that there is an issue in your fields but you are still going to have to go out there and find out the cause.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Paige

Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.

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