Agricultural Drones and Farming Drones


Agricultural Drones & Farming Drones

Farms and ranches in the US are the most productive they’ve ever been. American growers feed the world, and they need the best tools to keep adding more output per acre as demand for high quality, nutritious crops expands rapidly. Using agricultural drones (aka UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles) is the next logical step in the progression of increased yields and decreased costs, so let’s explore some of the ways you can use the sensors these farming drones carry for advanced precision agriculture.

What Is Precision Agriculture?

Precision Agriculture is the science of using data and sensors to take specific actions on your field at the right time. In the past, growers had to rely on rules of thumb or generalizations about the time of year and crop conditions to apply pesticides, fertilizers and other soil prescriptions.

Data Analysis of Fields

Now, by using agriculture drones and their instant data gathering capabilities, you can diagnose problems, estimate yields, and apply exact amounts of the correct product at the perfect time. All this information gathered by your precision ag drone helps you get the best possible harvest at the lowest costs.

How Much Do I Need to Spend?

Drones with visual spectrum (traditional) cameras such as the DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus or Mavic Pro 2 can be rented for just a few hundred dollars per week. When you’re ready to invest in a weather tolerant, professional drone like the DJI Matrice M210, you can purchase a base unit and expand as your needs change. The beauty of the Matrice series drones is their modularity, so purchasing an agriculture-specific NDVI camera allows for a 10-second swap between visual and near-IR imaging.

How Agricultural Drones Fit Into the Precision Ag Ecosystem

Drones supplement other precision agricultural collection methods (like the sensors in your planter, harvester, and irrigation systems) by providing both the “big picture” and the “small picture.”

Overview mapping of the “Big Picture”

To get the “big picture”, we see our clients buy or rent a farming drone to get detailed, high-resolution maps of their entire farm or ranch using multiple smaller photos and image-stitching software from companies like Precision Hawk.  Once these georeferenced, orthomosaic maps are created, growers can get an overview and look for problem spots right away. Ranchers will often use these larger images to see where patches have become over-grazed and need time for recovery.

Drones used in Precision Agriculture

Close-Up Problem Solving of the “Small Picture”

When a problem spot is identified, you can then use an ag drone to look at a specific spot on the field by descending to just a few feet above the problem area and recording close-up pictures and video to determine the next steps. Modern farming drones have such excellent cameras that individual weeds can be identified using this technique. Moreover, with live-video control ranges of around 4 miles, almost every farm in the US can be scouted and mapped by a single ag drone each.

Beyond-Visual Imaging Overview

With farming drones and UAVs that use traditional cameras (i.e. “RGB” sensors for red, green, blue), you can replace expensive manned aircraft and helicopter flights that could cost thousands of dollars per hour. With agricultural-specific sensors like an NDVI-modified camera, you can replace beyond-visual imaging that was once only possible through satellite imaging.

RedEdge-M Camera

What is NDVI?

NDVI is an acronym that refers to the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. Subtracting the data of an image taken with a traditional RGB camera sensor from an image taken using a sensor that can see into the infrared spectrum (“near-IR”, but still invisible to our eyes) yields an entirely new image that shows the overall health of a plant. Depending on the species of crop, NDVI drones combine individual portions of the near-IR and visible spectra to show areas where irrigation, fertilization, pests or disease are causes for concern. Healthy plants and stressed plants that look identical to the naked eye reflect differently in the near-infrared spectrum. This unique facet of NDVI imaging with drones means that you can detect and prevent problems well before the season’s output is impacted.

More than just diagnosing problems, you can use an NDVI drone to predict harvest yields much sooner than has been possible before. This fascinating case study shows that just 42 days after planting the scientists were able to predict the results of the different treatments applied. This ability has powerful implications for pricing or futures contracts, insurance, labor and equipment planning, as well as your general peace of mind. Combined with regular, automated flights and integration into your existing software and sensor data, NDVI imaging from agricultural drones has the potential to completely transform your approach to farming.

Agricultural Drone Options

To start out, we suggest renting an easy-to-use drone like the Phantom 4 Pro Plus. It has a visual spectrum camera, includes a bright screen on the remote control unit, and is ready to go out of the box. 

dji phantom 4 pro quadcopter with built in hd screen
DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus
Parrot Bluegrass
Parrot Bluegrass with Sequoia Multispectral Sensor

If you are looking for an all in one package and the lowest cost of entry into the professional precision agricultural aerial sensor market check out the Parrot BlueGrass. This drone provides a small footprint for easy transporting, a 1080p camera view and a Sequoia Multispectral and Sunshine Sensor which will help farmers  improve their ROI

Once you decide to try beyond visual spectrum imaging, the Matrice M210 series is your best bet. You can attach and remove cameras as your needs change. Powered by one or two batteries, the Matrice 210 brings very flexible flight time and payload combinations. We recommend the M210 with RedEdge-MX, a high-resolution camera modified for NDVI imaging.

DJI Matrice 210 available at Blue Skies Drone Rental
DJI Matrice M210

For larger farms, 500 acres and above, you’ll want a longer flight time drone. The Sensefly and the Quantum Trinity F90+ both fly longer and faster than a traditional quadcopter and are purpose-built with aerial surveying of farms in mind.

These fixed-wing ag drones can take images of areas several times larger than a small DJI model. The Trinity, for example, can fly up to 90 minutes on a single charge, covering an area of over 3,000 acres at 5 cm/pixel resolution. Because it takes off and lands like a traditional multicopter, you don’t need any special runways or catching equipment. Renting for a few hundred dollars per day, the Quantum Trinity is the perfect way to complete a drone survey of even the largest farms.

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