In January, Trimble announced it was adding the UX5 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to its ag products division. This small drone comes equipped with a camera that can capture geo-referenced photographs, near-infrared images for NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) analysis as well as topographical information, making it a handy tool for anything from locating cattle in a pasture to creating prescription field maps.
“In 2011 we acquired a company out of Belgium called gatewing, explains Stephanie Spiller, technical solutions manager at Trimble. “Originally, the X100 (the company’s first UAV) was introduced to our geospatial division. One of the biggest requests that came in from that industry was can we do this for farming. Hence, our agriculture group has adopted the same technology with the UX5.”
Interest in using UAVs in precision farming has been growing because of the goldmine of data they can capture to enhance farm management.
“You’d be able to measure your crop health as well as the nitrogen content with the NDVI index,” Spiller adds. “You would also be able to monitor crop height or how well a crop is growing in a specific area and from that you’d be able to make a specific prescription (map).”
“It would also be useful if you have a large area and just want to have a topographic map. You could know where depressions and high points are and eventually use that for land levelling or drainage.”
Importing images captured by the UX5 into Trimble’s Business Centre software, producers can create a variety of different maps. “Once you’ve stitched all your images together you could export it and overlay it onto Google Earth or something like that,” notes Spiller.
Flying at altitudes between 75 and 750 metres, the UX5 is capable of taking high resolution images with a position accuracy of five centimetres (two inches).
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“The accuracy of the plane is dependent on a couple of factors,” says Spiller. “How high you’re flying the plane is one factor, also the overlap of the pictures you’re taking and the area you want to cover. All those things factor into the accuracy of the data you’re collecting.”
“If, let’s take, you have a grain silo in your field and you want to know its precise location. If you have that silo located in four overlapping photos, that’s going to give you four reference points. However, if you have it in, say, 10 or 15 different images, that’s going to give you even more reference points to lock down its location.”
“We do a minimum of 60 per cent overlap. Overlap can be used to have more reference points, or it can also be used if you’re flying in windy conditions in case one or two images are unusable, so you can be sure you have some redundancy in your operation.”
Putting it to work
When you open the box of a UX5 kit, you’ll find everything you need to take to the skies.
“You get the actual plane, the vehicle itself,” says Spiller. “With that comes all the electronics. To control the plane you get a ground control station, which is essentially a Windows 7 ruggedized tablet. You get the launcher that is used to put the UX5 into flight and all the software components. You get spare parts, the radio for communications and the camera as well.”
The camera that comes with the plane is a standard, off-the-shelf 16 megapixel Sony. It’s available with an additional near-infrared lens that captures the NDVI data.
The price tag for all this equipment comes in at US$50,999. Included with that is five days of training, enough to turn anyone into a competent UX5 pilot.
“It’s actually quite an extensive training,” says Spiller. “You do two days of theoretical knowledge in the classroom, then you do three days out in the field practicing for different scenarios.”
To fly a UX5, operators pre-program a flight plan into the tablet and launch the plane. The UX5 then follows a GPS-guided path, which is fully automated from takeoff to landing.
“When you’re in flight, you do have a real-time display on the tablet, so you’ll be able to see all standardized flight information such as plane speed and GPS location as well as how many photos you’ve taken,” she continues. “There are safety maneuvers you can do with the plane, but you can’t alter the flight plan at all. You can move it left or right, you can also put the plane in a holding pattern or you can initiate an emergency landing.”
The UX5 is powered by an electric motor and uses a 14.5 volt onboard lithium battery, giving it a 50 minute flight time. At an airspeed of 80 km/h., the plane can cover about two square kilometres in a single flight.
“In Canada you are required to have authorization to fly the plane,” Spiller explains. “That is the proof of training that you receive from your retailer. You’re also required to submit a flight plan to your local aviation authority. That is the same flight plan you would pre-program on your tablet. They would then give you permission to fly for that day in that time frame.”
Although the UX5 already has a wide range of data collection capabilities, the future uses of aerial drones in agriculture will likely continue to grow.
“We recognize this product has great potential for more applications,” says Spiller. “I’m sure as the industry picks up this new technology there’ll be lots [more] suggestions.”