Commercial use of drones in farms and other agriculture

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  • Great conversation here.

    The eyes will be in the air--guiding the tools on the ground. 

    After twelve hours behind the wheel of the tractor, I feel like a robot :-)

  • 100KM


    How nice to have your own farm and fly FPV around it. 

    For 3000 acre, you may just need 3 to 4 flight, 1 hour flight time for each flight to cover the whole area. I've been able to map about 500 acre in 30 minutes flight time at 200 meter altitude. My set up is a simple NewSkywalker with 4S 5000 mah battery.

    In my opinion, at current stage, the low cost DIY UAV is very capable to produce othomosaic, DEM and DSM. The GSD is about 7 cm/pixel in 200 meter altitude. The resolution is high enough for general operation decision making purpose. 

    The next stage may be using it to produce NDVI for crop analysis. If the camera like maxmax can be effectively use in these area, then I think the potential will be huge. 

    Crop duster or sprayer may be still a long way to go before it can become economical and being the expected weight carry by the UAV, safety will be an issue. 

  • Martin;

    I can see where small swarms of drones could be used but I think this is still some time out. For a hive type system you would need a drone that can leave the hive, Fly a half a mile out scout the location it is going to. Then apply the treatment needed that it carried out from the hive. then fly a half a mile back. At this point it would still be a small or medium size quad to do this. Also the cost needs to get down to a point that this can be paid for by a farmer.


    One reason I like flying spraying vs ground based is we work alot on potatos. and they don't like being driven on. so with ground based it hurts yield.  but if we start talking about 5 lbs RC cars those would not have the same mark made as a full size ground rig. so that might change the proccess.


  • Tim, I totally agree with your assessment of the uses in drones.  Another I could see would just be simple historical record keeping.  I would get some use out of having one aerial map of each field on the same date (middle of the growing season) each year.  Tracking poor spots getting larger or smaller would be interesting over time.

    Concerning VR, you are right about efficiency.  The big corporate or Huderite Colony farms up here use variable rate to cut back on total fertilizer costs by not fertilizing the areas that never produce good yields.  With fertilizer bills running anywhere from $200-400k/yr on a 3000 acre farm (depending on fert price fluctuation), the savings could add up to some pretty significant numbers on large farms.  

  • Good intro into VR technology and some of the tools/methods that are commonly used. Good point about VRT not being the silver bullet in producing better yields, but its definitely going to increase our efficiency. 

    At the onset of drone adoption in agriculture, I think they will have two functions with the common agronomist or large producer/farm: 1) aid the delineation of management zones for VR applications (fertilizer and seed), and 2) aid in targeted scouting. As things advance, I think we will begin to see actual measurements taken from drones translate directly into prescriptions with very litter need for human involvement (similar to NDVI sensors currently on many sprayers across the world).

    I don't think we'll see any significant adoption in a unmanned system for aerial chemical applications. There has been numerous automated ground-based systems developed that use mechanical pest controls, which means large capacity tanks will not be necessary.  They are basically ardurovers with flails (or fire) and sensors able to distinguish friend (crop) from foe (pest).

  • As for drones replacing sprayers of any kind (ground or air) that is not likely to happen any time soon. As someone below posted, a plane probably holds at least 500 gallons (4000+lbs) of liquid, my ground sprayer holds 1350 Imperial Gallons (13,500+lbs) and I can spray between 75 and 130 acres with that depending on the chemical and conditions. I have 3000 acres of land in about 20 fields and spray each field between 1 and 5 times in an average season depending on crop type.. do the math.... :) Now if we ever DID get to a point where we could have drones the size of bees, the could just identify weeds visually and just chew them off or something....  and take pictures of diseases and/or spray just the diseased plants, that would work, but we are a long ways away from that now.   Definitely exciting stuff, but we have to start out small.

  • LanMark-friend request accepted. Good to know about the MaxMax cameras, will definitely look into that once we get a platform for taking pictures that we are satisfied with.

    We are gradually dipping our toes in Precision Ag. We have had full GPS steering on all our tractors and combines and sprayer for over 10 years (and that helped significantly cut back on overlap and misses and waste of seed/fert/chemicals (plus the fields just look 1000x better :) )), but we are just now getting into fertilizer and seed prescriptions using our variable rate drill.

    There are several ways that prescriptions are built for varying the fertilizer and seeding rates.

    Common methodologies involve:

    -using yield maps from previous years harvests (seed/fertilize heavier in the areas that did well, put less in the low spots etc that will drown out anyways)

    -using historic NIR or color satellite imagery going back 5-10 years to find areas that historically have a higher green-level and put more fertilizer in higher-growth areas

    -use Electro-conductivity testing (usually pull a sled behind a truck or other in a grid pattern across field)-this gives a good indication of nutrient levels in the soil.

    -elevation mapping using GPS and historical photos etc to find areas that typically flood out or are too alkali (salty) to grow.

    Usually some combination of these methods is used to divide the field into 3-7 zones, and then several soil samples are taken at different depths in each zone and analyzed in a lab. Then a prescription is built around those zones and fed into a computer on the tractor running the air-drill (seeder). The tractor's gps and seeders computer figure out where to increase or decrease the various inputs as you seed. (most air-seeders have 1-4 tanks for various inputs that can all be varied independently).

    There is obviously lots of debate about which methods work, and how you should use the information to vary your fertilizer rates. It used to be that people thought you should have higher fertilizer rates in the areas that did poorly or have little available nutrients in the soil, but currently most people feel that you should try to get more out of the areas that naturally do well, and not waste $$$ on the areas that are hopeless anyways. I tend to lean towards the later.

    Many farmers around here have dabbled in variable rate fertilizer, but there aren't many who have had dramatic enough results to stick with it. We'll see how it goes this year, as we are trying it on around 260 acres.

    I could see that aerial images of various types could be useful in collecting information for making these prescriptions. I don't think prescriptions are a magic bullet to phenomenal yields, but I think they have a place in the toolbox.

    ANYWAYS, sorry to hijack this into a variable-rate-fertilizer discussion, but hopefully it helps with some background on where the current 'precision ag' scene is at from an average farm perspective.

  • I use Agisoft Photoscan Pro along with position/attitude from our GeoSnap VN add-on. The position/attitude data helps provide an initial condition so the software knows where to start finding tie points. You would be surprised how many unique patterns stitching software can find in a "uniform" field. I stitch the CIR images once they are converted into TIFs.   

  • very interesting.. at what stage are you stitching the data into a mosaic... what are you using to stitch the data together.  Seems like with the way fields are there would be limited elements to aid in the stitching... what do you do to get the many images to stitch properly.

  • LanMark- If your primary interest is developing image processing software, I think the MaxMax cameras are the perfect camera to trying things out with. My primary interest is streamlining the production of othromosaics so whole fields can be mapped quickly in an automated fashion. The less I have to worry about the spectral validity of a camera the better (at least in my situation). PixelWrench2, the software application that comes with the Tetracam cameras can output a variety of vegetation indices including NDVI. Typically I create the CIR orthomosaic, then I import that back into pixelwrench to perform the NDVI calc and apply a color pallet. Below shows how a "healthy" and "stressed" sugarbeet leaf. You can compare the RGB, vs CIR and NDVI (the CIR came from the ADC Lite and the NDVI was derived form the CIR using PixelWrench2)




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