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RDO INTEGRATED CONTROLS BLOG - June, 2017


Navigating a New World – UAV Technology in Agriculture

Navigating a New World – UAV Technology in Agriculture

My first exposure to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was as a master’s student at Kansas State University. I was researching nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) in winter wheat varieties and had the opportunity to collaborate with another researcher looking at applications for UAV technology in agriculture. This was very early in the development of UAVs, and it was unclear where they fit into agricultural production systems or how they could be used.

I first met Dr. Kevin Price at the edge of one of my research fields, where he was piecing together a homemade, or rather a laboratory-made, UAV. I had never seen a UAV other than a military predator drone, so I was skeptical that a UAV with pool noodles for landing gear and a modified point-and-shoot camera bolted to the bottom would provide anything useful to my research. As Price finished assembling his drone, he gave a simple pre-flight safety lesson, “If it starts coming towards you, don’t just stand there, run. It has the equivalent of eight butcher knives spinning at several thousand RPMs and will cut you.”

I took a few steps back. (Okay, maybe more than a few.)

With a quick check of his systems and confirmation that the UAV had adequate GPS signal, Price coaxed the octocopter into the sky and began flying parallel lines over my field trials. Admittedly, it was a boring flight, and within ten minutes he had flown the several acres that my field experiments covered.

A few days later, Price shared some of the imagery and preliminary analyses, and I quickly became convinced of the utility of UAVs in agriculture. Not only did it detect the same genetic differences in nitrogen use that I saw through tissue analysis, but it also showed clear mistakes in how portions of the plots had been hand-harvested that helped me better manage my fields and research.

Drones have advanced considerably since I first saw one fly over my fields several years ago. Not only do they look more professional, but they are packed with sophisticated sensors, flight computers, and high-resolution cameras that make safely operating a UAV extremely simple.

As the technology has become more affordable and easier to use, farmers and service providers have become more interested in integrating UAVs into their businesses. When considering what kind of drone to purchase and begin using, ask yourself the following three questions.

1. What do I want to do?

What do you want to use UAVs for? Many simply want to use drones because they’re fun, and a great marketing resource for photography and videography. In this case, there are a lot of affordable consumer drones that have great cameras and 4K video capability. However, drones can also be used as a tool for understanding soil, monitoring plant health, and potentially making management decisions. For those looking to integrate drones into a farm or agronomy business, many consumer drones can be used and fitted with NIR sensors for creating NDVI imagery.

2. How much do I want to spend?

When it comes to price, the sky’s the limit! With drones, the adage that you get what you pay for rings very true. There are many different UAVs that you can purchase from Best Buy, Amazon, or other retailers at affordable prices; but, while great for consumers, they lack many of the features needed for making management decisions on the farm. Some of the features you should consider would be: NIR or multi-spectrum cameras for looking at specific wavelengths of light that are a better indicator of plant health; incident light sensors for correcting exposure issues that are common on partly-cloudy days; and software that enables autonomous flight and image processing.

3. How do I choose between Multi-rotor vs Fixed-wing?

The two different flying styles of drones each have their advantages and disadvantages. Multi-rotor UAVs, like the popular DJI Phantom, are great for spot checking fields. They are affordable, user-friendly, capable of vertical landings and takeoffs (making them convenient in tight places), and are often equipped with great cameras for taking pictures and video. However, they have notoriously short battery endurance because of the four (or more) rotors that are required for flight. This makes them a less-than-ideal solution for flying large acres because they will require multiple battery changes and frequently a way to recharge batteries in the field.

Fixed-wing aircraft, such as the senseFly eBee SQ, or Sentera Phoenix, or AgEagle are great examples of drones capable of large-scale use in agriculture. They are truly professional-quality drones and are capable of longer sustained flights, typically in the range of 40-50 minutes, allowing them to cover more acres per battery. The fixed-wing aircraft are fully autonomous and have more advanced flight software that allows for more customization. These UAVs are usually equipped with advanced sensors that allow for standard color imagery and NDVI. A drawback to these systems is that they are usually more expensive than multi-rotor drones and are not the best option for those who want to take videos or pictures for marketing purposes.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology has changed considerably since I first saw Dr. Kevin Price fly one of my fields with his UAV. As I’ve worked as an agronomist in the industry, I’ve continued to experiment with the technology to find ways to do my job better and help farmers. I’m convinced that they have a place at the table, but as with any new technology, the hardest part is just getting started.

If you are considering adding a UAV to an agronomy or farming operation, my recommendation is to start small. Consider purchasing an affordable multi-rotor aircraft and develop a workflow that makes sense for you. When you are ready to cover more acres and can justify the cost, upgrade to a professional fixed-wing aircraft.

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About the Author
Nate Dorsey is an Agronomist for RDO Equipment Co. based in Moorhead, MN. Connect with him on Twitter @RDONateDorsey.
To learn more about UAV technology solutions from RDO Equipment Co., contact your local store.

 

June 20, 2017  |  Category:

Ready for Takeoff – RDO Equipment Co. Flies High at Drone Focus Conference

Ready for Takeoff – RDO Equipment Co. Flies High at Drone Focus Conference

On May 31, drone users, UAS enthusiasts, and those brand-new to the industry gathered in Fargo, ND for the third-annual Drone Focus Conference. The two-day event brought together hobbyists and professionals to learn, share ideas, and connect.

Agricultural Impact
RDO Equipment Co. welcomed two speakers to Drone Focus, Jason Barton of Agribotix and Nathan Stein of senseFly. Both spoke about UAS in agriculture, with Jason discussing opportunities of implementing precision ag technology, drones included, but also the challenge of technology adaption by farmers.

Nate Dorsey, Agronomist, added insight to Jason’s message, “We find, while most farmers know and use the basics, the majority aren’t aware how capable their machines really are and how much functionality they have. We’re trying to help our customers understand all the technology offered.”

In his presentation, Nathan [Stein] touched on the effects of UAS technology on agronomy, saying, “Agronomy and the way plants grow isn’t going to change. But by fusing agronomy with the information we’re gathering from drones, that’s when good decisions can be made.”

Nate [Dorsey] agreed, explaining the data is key in detecting problems early. “We provide customers, and the agronomists they work with, the data to help make decisions that can prevent problems and yield loss,” he said.

Jason and Nathan joined a lineup of notable speakers that included U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, U.S. Senator (R-ND) John Hoeven, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. All three leaders had a similar message in the rapid evolution of technology and the industry, and that the future of autonomy is headed beyond drones.

Swarming
Bill Edmonson, UAV Product Specialist in Billings, hosted a workshop that demonstrated opportunities with swarming – operating more than one drone simultaneously. This was important message for Drone Focus attendees, who, throughout the event, heard about several areas of opportunity for swarming in areas like agriculture, pipeline, and search and rescue missions.

Swarming offers major advantages, with two, three, or even ten drones working together able to cover more area, and cover it faster, than one. Bill highlighted the RDO Equipment Co. team’s experience in swarming from an event last October – a fully-coordinated, planned mission of ten senseFly eBee drones flying simultaneously.

Continuously Evolving
The first Drone Focus Conference was all about possibilities, while last year presenters began sharing initial experiences. This year, the industry’s maturity was even more evident, with several UAS-specific companies discussing services and expertise, as well as a greater number of seasoned experts sharing their knowledge.

Three of these experts, RDO Equipment Co. customers, participated in a panel discussion. Ryan Otis, Otis Farms and Ryan Rustan, Blattner Energy, are both professionals who have successfully implemented drones into their business, while Joey Schmit of Flight Pros is a provider of UAS technology services.

The panel cited data management as the biggest challenge in the industry. To help manage it and expectations, all agreed that it’s important to first understand the goals of the data, then work back to base a plan on achieving them.

“The info shared by our customers provided great value to attendees,” Kelly Gress, Vice President of the RDO Integrated Controls division, said. “Thank you to Joey, Ryan, and Ryan for taking the time to share their unique insights and experiences with drones in their businesses.”

A final message from the panel was one that came up in other presentations throughout the conference: Drones can’t and won’t ever fully replace traditional methods. They’re a great tool to have in the toolbox but people are still needed to understand them, operate them, and turn the data they produce into actions.

What’s Next
If this year’s event proved one thing it’s that autonomous technology isn’t going away, and the RDO Equipment Co. team continues to lead in delivering the UAS solutions customers are and will be demanding.

Contact the RDO Equipment Co. team to learn how we can help you implement UAS technology to your business and bring the benefits to your bottom line.

 

June 7, 2017  |  Category: