What do farmers and people using UAVs for agriculture need to know?
As we know, UAVs can bridge the gap for farmers when it comes to big data and their agriculture. UAVs can limit waste of farming inputs and ensure successful crop growth unlike any previous methods. In 2012 and 2013 the team at 3D Robotics has been flying their UAVs on farms, gathering data and talking to farmers about what they want and how they work. These are some of the lessons they learned:
10. Every crop is different
Crops vary – fruit, veg, trees, roots etc all require different measurements to generate actionable data. There is no universal crop survey solution, and it will probably be specialists in each particular crop type who ultimately deliver solutions to farmers.
9. Multicopters – not planes
3D robotics began with fixed wing UAVs but quickly found that most farms don’t have landing strips. Even short take off and landing planes get battered quickly when they’re regularly used without landing areas. Multicopters can take off and land anywhere and can fly for longer, covering more ground.
8. Phones/tablets – not laptops
Farmers don’t want to be dragging laptops into a field, they need portable tech. UAVs used regularly should ideally be operated by smartphone or tablet.
7. One click auto missions – not flying
Along with farmers being reluctant to drag around technical equipment, they are less interested in flying things. Agricultural UAVs should be fully autonomous, from take off to landing. Farmers should be able to press start and be confident that the UAV will complete the mission on its own.
6. Fly the camera – not the aircraft
The farmer wants to see a picture. They don’t want to worry about how to get that picture. The sophisticated planning tools should figure out precisely how to gather the right images, autonomy will take care of the nitty gritty details of flight dynamics, and humans should be left to do what they do best — tell you what they want.
5. Video can be worth more than stills
Farmers are experts in their field (no pun intended). Their ability to spot things with their own eyes should not be overlooked or underestimated. Sometimes a first-person-view live video feed will allow them to spot issues and direct the vehicle to more closely inspect the problem area.
4. NDVI is easier than you think
NDVI stands for Normalized Differential Vegetation Index and is the top standard of crop surveying. The science is that NDVI shows the difference between regular red light reflected from plants and near-infrared light. Healthy chlorophyll absorbs red and reflects near-IR, while damaged chlorophyll reflect both. It doesn’t take expensive cameras to gather this data. A regular camera slightly modified with a blue bit of plastic becomes a near-IR camera. Take a cheap consumer 3D camera with two lenses, modify one for near-IR and you have a NDVI camera for less than $200.
3. Crop consultants – not farmers
Most crop data services are provided by local consultants, such as agronomists, not the farmers themselves. However, FAA regulations currently ban most commercial use of UAVs – defined as anything where money changes hands – meaning most are used by farmers themselves for their own purposes on their own land. But Congress has mandated that the FAA introduce regulations to allow wider commercial use by 2015 (although it will probably be later than that before this happens). At that point, expect most users to be those local service providers, not the farmers themselves.
2. Time is money
UAVs give farmers answers quickly and inexpensively. “Timely data on time” means farmers will know exactly the right time to harvest. The aim of crop surveying is to show the farmers something they can’t see with their own eyes, and the time dimension is a great example of that. By doing regular crop surveys, say every day or week, and using software to highlight differences over time, it’s possible to zero in on growing differences between areas of a field, which may be directly correlated to productivity.
1. Data can be marketing
Some seed companies already offer to do aerial crop surveys for free as part of a sales process, much as they once “walked the field” as part of a free crop analysis process. Similarly, crop survey data can do more than simply guide a farmer into making different crop management decisions. It can also allow the farmer to market their harvest more effectively, pitching such high-tech precision agriculture as a differentiating quality in a commodity field.