Matt Eich is the current NAICC president and a consultant with Centrol Crop Consulting in Volga, S.D. For more, go to www.NAICC.org.
Every year, I question if using UAVs—or drones as I’ll refer to them here—this season will help me become more efficient and help my customers.
Since drones entered the agriculture scene, they have been pushed as the next best thing and as a replacement for a person in the field. Consultants had the promise of virtually scouting fields from the comfort of their offices. Although many practical uses of drones have been discovered and implemented, replacing boots in the field has yet to become a reality.
PRACTICAL USES OF DRONES IN AGRICULTURE
Most commonly, drones create imagery—visual or multispectral images—to produce an in-depth overview of the field. One can determine crop health at a snapshot in time, identify areas that need additional fertility, gauge whether the crop is moisture-stressed from drought or excess rain or assess whether a crop has disease that we cannot yet see with the naked eye.
When my company, Centrol Crop Consulting, first acquired a drone many years ago, deciding how to use it was up in the air. In the early years, having a drone seemed like the thing to do, so we went through the process of purchasing one. At the time, fewer companies were selling drones, so it wasn’t as easy then as it is today to find a suitable drone. We used the drone to fly fields using visual, near infrared or NDVI imagery to calculate the results. We saw some decent results; however, in the end, we decided that engaging a firm with higher quality equipment was better suited for our needs and our customers.
Drones do have practical uses, however. Here’s one example. A local insurance company had heard that Centrol had a drone, and it contacted us with a claim in which one of its insured had cattle get in a neighbor’s fields and damage the crop. We learned 120 cow-calf pairs had decided that the nearly mature corn in two sections was tastier than the forage growing in their own pasture. After learning how large of an area had been impacted, a drone was the perfect tool to measure the damage.
We flew the two sections of corn with the drone, and then, we took the data back to the office and processed multiple maps from the flight. After importing the images into our software, we found the total acreage with yield loss.
After viewing the areas that were affected, I was then able to cross-check the damage in several areas using the maps generated from the drone flights and give the insurance company an accurate estimate of damage.
This was a huge savings in time, and it would have been almost impossible to do from the ground.
Many Options But Still Many Obstacles
Today, drones have highly technical and advanced imagery equipment available. A large number of companies offering drones, equipment and software make the promise that you can do about anything a human in the field can do—and then some. Although this may be true when it comes to collecting NIR, thermal and other technical data, the flying and data collection are the “easy” parts at this time. Once you have your data, you must process the data into usable information. This is something that still takes a lot of time and is really an additional tool in the toolbox, not a replacement for a scout in the field.
As of now, drones are tools that we as consultants can use to help us serve our customers with more options than we could before. However, there are still limitations, especially with the amount of time it takes to process data. This makes boots on the ground a more practical approach. I can see a day where we may be able to process the data on the fly, but for this season, you’ll find me out in the field looking at the crops from an ATV.