Agriculture surveys

Farm use of Drones

Agriculture is expected to be the largest growth industry for drones.  There are techniques that have been developed that can measure moisture levels, chlorophyll productivity as well as general visual health of the fields.

In Japan, drones like the RMax (Yamaha precision agriculture) have been used for over 25 years to provide agriculture services across the island country’s challenging agriculture fields.  These aircraft have flown over 2 Million flight hours of service which shows a very stable platform.  With an aging population and decreased agriculture labor begged for a new, novel solution.  When you combine these social effects with the general ability for a drone to provide precision fertilization, these abilities become very valuable to the Island nation.

Yamaha RMax being used for precision agriculture.

The scale of agriculture in the USA is quite different than that in Japan.  Many thousands of gallons are loaded up every day into ‘crop dusters’ and applied to fields.  To seed large scale rice fields in Northern California, thousands of pounds of seeds are loaded in aircraft and these aircraft are used to sow whole fields in single passes of these aircraft.  Agriculture aviation groups have concern over how to de-conflict the airspace, these full scale aircraft are flying low, fast and in very little visibility.  Adding a drone in the same airspace as a local aircraft without careful communication is a recipe for disaster.  This same group has released a UAV Safety campaign with very useful information.  They suggest using an ADS-B transponder, but in general, these devices do not work very reliably below 1500 feet AGL.

Problems with using drones for agriculture:

  • Conflicts with full scale aircraft operations
  • Lack of physical volume of fertilizers or pest control on drones as compared with existing full scale aircraft
  • Lack of ability to get actionable data or reporting to the end user, the farmer

There are many ways to still use drones to provide value to the stakeholders of the agriculture economy.  Techniques are being used to estimate the volume of fruit on trees and vines.  Using visual imagery, computer vision tools can be used to estimate the status of a productive field.

Project Highlight: Precision agriculture for the wine country of Sonoma Valley, CA

A drone, (multirotor octo-copter/8 rotors), was used to capture aerial images in different ways.  During some of the growing season, clouds prevent satellite imagery from being collected for up to a week at a time. Wine future markets depend on data to let them know both the quality and quantity of wine grapes in fields.  By aggregating this data, patterns can be discerned for the regional grape co-ops that take many smaller farms production and provide them in mass to larger wine-growers.  Prices of these futures can be set based on real world, accurate data of grape volume in the fields.

Aerial MOB’s experience with fixed wing units are currently the most applicable to agricultural drone services.  Due to the economics of agriculture, value per acre has been suggested as the metric, and per acre costs on services have been suggested.  Currently, regulation limits the use of drones for non-line-of-sight operations.  When a safe flight can be performed where the drone can perform it’s job, collecting data over large areas in short times, AND when we have good analysis AND reporting of this data, we can get to cost per acres that will provide tremendous value.

Automated pattern to collect visual data on a specific area (Image from diydrones.com)