When remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), or drones, first started appearing on the market, it was thought their uses in agriculture would be mainly limited to third-party companies farmers would hire to fly over their fields and to analyze and provide information collected by those drones.
However, today it is mainly farmers purchasing and using drones on their farms, says RPAS expert, Markus Weber, founder of LandView Drones.
You may know about some of the more common uses for your drones, such as field mapping or crop scouting. However, your drone can be used for so much more, like granular fertilizer application or farm tours and agvocacy.
“The basic use (of drones) for crop scouting or livestock monitoring has increased substantially,” says Weber. “Some of those are basically consumer drones, but they still give a quick aerial view of the field so, for those uses, I’ve seen very fast adoption.”
A smartphone in the sky
When farmers buy their first drone, they typically use if for some basic uses, like getting an aerial view of their fields.
“It’s like a smartphone in the sky, essentially,” says Weber. “It’s a camera that you can position anywhere above a field to get an aerial view. Just getting 100 to 300 feet up in the air and taking a look at fields will let most farmers see things like water-related issues, fertility issues, equipment problems, or if the timing is off on a seeder or sprayer, for example. Most people initially will get an aerial view without taking advantage of the autonomous functions for mapping.”
Eventually, many farmers begin to learn more about the capabilities of their drones and start exploring the third-party software for piloting and interpreting the data they collect, which opens up a lot of opportunities.
Weber, who offers a two-day Ag Drone School, has a list of at least 75 different uses for drones in agriculture he has seen or heard about from farmers using the technology — everything from crop scouting and assessing insect damage to counting livestock and public agvocacy.
We selected 12 common and not-so-common uses to illustrate the versatility of this production tool for farmers:
1. Field mapping: Drones can be used for measuring acres either in advance of or after a field operation, and can be used for things like making a claim for unseeded acres or damaged acres from hail, wind, flooding or spray drift.
“In advance, would be things like trying to decide how much seed to buy. If, for example, a farmer has a new field and doesn’t know what the seeded acreage is going to be, he or she can guess from the road or measure accurately from above,” says Weber.
“Likewise, after the operation, if it’s a really wet spring, they can measure how many acres were seeded. By doing these mapping workflows, you can measure the exact acreages, exact distances or even cross sections if you want to do drainage.”
2. Guided crop scouting: Using sensors on drones that measure things such as the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), farmers can collect data and make an NDVI map that shows them any anomalies in the field.
“Farmers can then go to specific locations in the field where there are extremes or anomalies, or things are not looking the way they would expect them to. Rather than a random sample of the field, they get a good view of the best, the worst and those things that are unusual.”
3. On-farm trials: More farmers are interested in doing trials on their own farms and drones are a good tool for helping them to collect accurate results, says Weber, who has used drones for this purpose on his own farm.
“I started with seeding experiments like varying nitrogen and seeding rates and I put down 160 different trials. When it came time to harvest, there wasn’t time to calibrate the yield monitor properly, and only one of the three yield monitors would be running because I’m in that combine. So, we couldn’t get good data at the end of the year from these trials.”
Using a drone provides Weber and other farmers a new data source for trials in two ways. First, it provides data independently of the individuals operating the different systems and independent of the time demand during harvest.
Second, it provides information on outcomes during the season rather than after the season. “For things like fertility trials or extendibility trials, you can fly an NDVI map with the drone midseason and get your relative yield in June, late June and early July,” says Weber. “What that enables you to do is go to areas in the trials that seem out of the ordinary and inspect them further. It adds a lot more data if you can still look at the crop during that vegetative state, rather than after it’s in the bin and there’s only stubble left.”
Many ag companies are conducting research with drones for things like genetic breeding trials, says Weber, because it’s more efficient and inexpensive to fly a drone and collect 20,000 data points than to have students out collecting it on the ground.
4. Documentation: Flooding or drainage: Farmers can use drone-collected data in a few ways when it comes to issues with flooding or drainage on their land, for flood insurance claims, or even to help settle disputes with other landowners or users of the land.
“If there’s a blocked culvert and a dispute between neighbours, this is a way to measure how large that flooding is this spring, as opposed to the previous spring — so it helps with dispute resolution,” says Weber.
“It can also be used by a farmer if he is going to aggregate some drainage, drain some sloughs and not others, or to investigate what might happen before they even start applications or moving soil. It’s a non-invasive way of collecting that data.”
5. Volumetrics: The process of flying a drone in a grid pattern and then stitching the imagery together to create one large map is called photogrammetry. “That process is automatically in 3-D space, so you’re not just creating a 2-D map of your field, you’re creating a 3-D map of your field,” says Weber.
“If you have a pile of barley, a silage pit or a gravel pile, any of those can be measured. You can measure those volumes and compare them over time, so you could fly over a pile of fertilizer or grain and measure how much is in that pile.”
6. Counting animals: Feedlots are increasingly using drones to count cattle because it saves a tremendous amount of time and labour and reduces stress on the animals from having to pass them through gates and pens manually. The drone takes a picture and software automatically counts the number of animals.
In a range situation, it’s not as easy to use drones for counting, but some farmers are still doing it. “Some farmer will fly the drone out weekly and take pictures as it flies over the herd — then play it back and count the animals manually,” says Weber, adding it’s definitely a time saver and useful for accessing harder-to-reach pastures.
7. Weed control: Weed control is a use for drones where there is definitely a lot of potential going forward. Many areas of the world, like the United States and some Asian countries, are already spraying pesticides by drone. Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency has just approved the spraying of herbicides or other pesticides for research use.
The beauty of drone application is herbicides and other products can be spot-applied only where needed, making it an important stewardship tool as well as an effective weed control option for farmers.
“Some of the main applications could be things like spraying weeds like Canada thistle or wild oats, which are patchy in nature, and typically grow on 10 to 15 per cent of a field, not the entire field. The drone lets you hit only those areas that require the herbicide as opposed to a blanket application,” says Weber.
“Often, the economic and environmental aspect of sustainability go hand in hand. What’s good for the farmer’s pocketbook often is also best for the environment.”
Weber expects within a few years we will see commercial-scale use of drones, especially for herbicide applications. “It all depends on how quickly the regulatory agency can be assured it is safe to do so, but I would think in a two- to five-year time frame we will see early widespread commercial use for very specific cases,” he says.
8. Granular fertilizer application: Because drones are small and operate on battery power, they can’t carry a heavy payload like fertilizers. Although they likely won’t be used for large-scale fertilizer application, they do have a place for applying small amounts of granular fertilizer in specific areas for things like cover crops.
“Farmers sometimes put a cover crop on unseeded acres in the spring, maybe where it was too wet to seed to prevent the weeds from taking over those areas,” says Weber. “Drones can spread a small dusting of fertilizer and cover crop seed in those areas.”
9. Surface rights: Many agricultural areas have competition for land use, whether it’s from utilities or oil and gas companies. Surface use of the land can be contentious for some farmers, and Weber’s company has been called in a number of times to fly drones and document damage on pieces of land, but it’s hard to document the extent of any damage after the fact.
“It’s really difficult to show damage with just an after-image,” says Weber. “It would be more possible to do that if you also had the before-imagery to compare. I always encourage any farmer that has a drone, if you’re going to have anyone else using the land, for whatever purpose, document it with your drone beforehand. If there is some problem in the way the pipeline or well site is reclaimed, they’ll have really good data afterward.”
The resolution on drone imagery is also much higher than Google Earth or other satellite imagery farmers might rely on to document their land. “The resolution on Google Maps or Google Earth is typically 20 centimetres per pixel. The resolution from these drones is 1.5 to 2.0 cm a pixel,” says Weber. “It lets you document extremely well what’s happening on your land, whether that’s for management or other purposes.”
10. Farm security: As rural dwellers know, response times for emergency services like police, ambulance or fire are not as fast as they are in an urban setting. Increasingly, those who live in a rural area, including farmers, are using drones for farm security and to keep an eye on property and what’s going on around things like gasoline or equipment storage areas, which can be prone to break-ins.
“If they see vehicles pull in at night, driving over and confronting people isn’t a good idea, it’s better to wait for the police. We have drones now that are legally allowed to fly at night,” says Weber.
“You can take a thermal drone, which can be used to find a person or vehicle at night that also has a spotlight on it. Once you find those people, you could put a spotlight on them and see what they’re up to. That’s much less confrontational, yet gives farmers some ability to investigate what’s happening on their land.”
11. Inspection of hard-to-reach areas: Drones are good for inspecting anything on the farm site that is hard to get to. For example, the top of a fertilizer bin leg for rusted bolts, a roof for leaks or a beaver dam on inhospitable terrain.
“All those things can be done well with the drone, without putting people at risk,” says Weber.
12. Farm tours and agvocacy: As we hear more about social licence and consumers’ interest in understanding more about farming practices and how and where their food is produced, drones can provide a window into the farm and a way to showcase the good management practices farmers are using to produce healthy, sustainable crops and livestock.
Weber says he came across one farmer on Twitter who flew a drone into his potato storage and got video of someone standing on the potato pile. “It was a great opportunity for that farmer to share his story and get into conversations about how he’s growing his crops sustainably and how potatoes are stored so people can educate themselves about the food supply chain,“ says Weber.
“Video, especially aerial video, gets a more emotional response than a picture or words. Those aerial videos of people harvesting or seeding, and then giving a short explanation of what they’re doing, works well to help educate the general public on farming practices.”
Some farms are doing virtual farm tours, which are easy to do with drone imagery. “It’s simple to do a 360-degree panorama. It’s just to show there is nothing unusual going on,” says Weber. “A little transparency goes a long way.”