The Drone wars over?
I think we can safely say we’ve weighed and measured the use of drones in agriculture over the last two years of flying. Agriculture has officially worn the “new” off and we’re left assessing the actual value of the UAV platform.
Ben Johnson makes some good points in his opinion article, “The Agricultural Drone War is Over And They Lost,” about the shortcomings of drones in the agricultural marketplace. But I think the real take-away from the article is more about using the right tool to capture the information you need to make informed decisions on your farm.
Having a successful imaging program of the farm is a balancing act of three factors that need to be considered whether you’re using a UAV at 400 feet elevation or a Rapideye satellite at 391.5 miles.
The first factor to consider is the resolution of the image you need to capture. Resolution is the size of a pixel in your captured image. If you’re wanting to look at crop performance over time, like we do in our INSIGHT program, a 15-foot pixel size may be more than enough to get the resolution you want. But if you’re wanting to look at how well your planter is placing seed, you’re going to need higher resolution like the 2.5-inch resolution a UAV provides.
The area that needs covered and the number of times it needs to be flown is the second factor. In our precision services division of the McGregor Company, we use imagery on everything from 1,000-acre fields to small trial plots. Obviously, this is where knowing what you want to capture in the imagery is important. UAV’s are great for small plots as they are best suited for smaller jobs due to their limited flight times. But a Rapideye satellite can capture a five-mile square with a single picture. The other consideration is how critical the image timing is. A satellite is on a set schedule of between five and 14 days. A UAV can be dispatched to the field and fly it every day if it needs to.
The third element is the information you are wanting to capture. If you’re looking for crop health/ biomass readings (NDVI), there are options on satellites, planes or UAVs. But if you’re after thermal imagery, such as a situation where you’re assessing the effectiveness of an irrigation pivot watering crops, you’ll have the best results using an airplane because the type of camera required to capture that type of imagery is better suited to higher elevations. We have a partner, TerrAvion, we use for this type of imagery and their platform is a good middle ground between UAVs and satellite imagery.
I think the one thing the “Drone Wars” have really started is a movement to use imagery to manage our crops regardless of the platform used to capture the information. As with most things in agriculture, when it comes to using imagery you have to start with the end in mind and choose the right tool from the toolbox in order to be successful.