Pearce: UAV system adds immediacy to crop diagnostics

The eBee Ag unit is lightweight (roughly 750 g) but can follow a detailed flight plan without remote controls. (Ralph Pearce photo)

When Felix Weber brought the Swinglet Cam to market about three years ago, the capability for “reading” a crop’s progress through different imagining cameras was considered revolutionary. Adoption of the technology has been slow, though, with early innovators spreading the message.

This year, senseFly, manufacturer of the Swinglet Cam, has introduced the eBee Ag system, billed as “ready-to-fly, easy-to-deploy, ultra-lightweight and fully autonomous.”

The system’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is fully autonomous and comes equipped with a software package that provides mission planning and precise mapping and imaging capabilities. It can also be outfitted with one of four different cameras to provide a variety of diagnostic information. Similar systems can be used for forestry, land surveying, urban planning, mining, conservation and environmental management.

The eBee system’s release comes amid discussion of satellite imagery taking its “next step” in providing farmers with detailed information.

According to a recent article in Farm Industry News, one company — Land O’ Lakes and its dealer arm, WinField — now has the capability to provide satellite images of farms. Others plan to have satellite-based services ready next year.

That said, the FIN article also points out the challenges in getting clear images from space. Satellites can make several passes per week over the same farm, but processing images will depend on uncontrollable factors such as cloud cover — and a lot can happen in a field while a farmer waits for images to be processed and analyzed.

A UAV can overcome those challenges, but Weber, a principal with Ag Business + Crop Inc., which hosted a recent open house at which the eBee Ag system was showcased, said he believes both systems have their advantages.

“I find the satellite images great for data required for large areas,” said Weber, who’s been both a seller and adviser on the Swinglet Cam and now the eBee unit. “The downfall for satellite at this time is reliability on timing and time delay due to cloud cover. At this time, the UAV market might be a lot faster to adopt in sensor or bandwidth needs.”

Brock Ryder, senseFly’s representative in Switzerland, was at Weber’s open house, and agreed satellite and UAV technologies each have their own strengths.

“I don’t think it’s a competition between satellite and UAVs — they’re both complimentary tools,” said Ryder. “We’re trying to help the agricultural industry — and other industries. It’s about being informed about the most practical and usable solution for the end user, and we have to be open to that. But for practical use, and ease of use and (time of turnaround) and more availability due to weather conditions, the UAV fits that market neatly.”

The eBee Ag System comes with a standard NIR (near infrared) camera which can provide biomass indications, growth monitoring and crop discrimination.

Options for cameras include an RE (red edge) camera for detecting plant stress, chlorophyll indication, drought assessment and senescence analysis; an RGB (red/green/blue band) camera provides colour two- and three-dimensional visual rendering, chlorophyll indication and drainage evaluation; and a multispectral camera can provide biomass indication and leaf area indexing as well as nitrogen recommendations.

More information on the eBee system and samples of its imaging capabilities are available on the senseFly website.

— Ralph Pearce is a field editor for Country Guide at St. Marys, Ont.


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