This is a great little video about how Unmanned Systems – or Drones or Robotic Aircraft (Whatever you would like to call them) can help in the future.
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Hear the word “drone” today and you’ll probably picture some kind of flying weapon, snooping or raining Hellfire missiles from above. But in reality, the first drones you’re likely to see actually in use are more likely to be closer to crop dusters, buzzing over farms. Rather than taking pictures and videos of people, they’ll be surveying fields, using their high-resolution sensors to improve crop yield and decrease agricultural water and chemical use.
Why farms? Because agriculture is a big data problem without the big data . About half of the “inputs” in farming (from fluids to pesticides, fungicides and herbicides) are typically wasted because they’re applied in greater amount than needed or in the wrong place, such as the ground between plants rather than the plants themselves. That’s considered unavoidable, due to the nature of spray application or the need to avoid under-use of water and chemicals, which can be catastrophic, from disease outbreak to total crop loss.
Soon farmers will know what’s going on with every plant, spotting problems before they spread, and applying chemicals with honeybee precision. They’ll use pesticides and fungicides only when needed and in the smallest amounts necessary, lowering the chemical load in both food and environment and saving money. On a small farm, you can get that level of precision with hand-tending. But on a big farm, the answer is more likely to be robotics, including flying robots — drones.
For the past year, my team at 3D Robotics has been flying our drones on farms, gathering data and talking to farmers about what they want and how they work. These are some of the lessons we’ve learned:
Every crop is different! It goes without saying, but grapes are not tomatoes, and tomatoes are not corn. There are hundreds of different kinds of farms, ranging from trees to roots (and that’s not even including livestock and ranching). Each crop needs to be measured differently 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.
Multicopters, not planes. We started with fixed-wing UAVs, but quickly realized that most farms don’t have landing strips. Even short takeoff-and-landing planes get battered fast in regular use without dedicated landing areas, which few farms have. Meanwhile, multicopters, which can take off and land anywhere, are gaining endurance and can now fly for as much as 40 minutes and cover miles. Planes are only suited for the largest farms, and even then missions need to be planned very carefully to find places they can reliably land.
Phones/tablets, not laptops. Farmers don’t want to drag laptops into the fields. Any drone that is expected to be used by regular consumers should be entirely operated by a standard Apple or Android smartphone or tablet.
One-click auto missions, not “flying”. Likewise, farmers don’t want to have to fly things . Agricultural UAVs should be fully-autonomous, from takeoff to landing. The experience should be as simple as pressing a “Start” button on a phone and the drone flies the entire mission on its own.
Fly the camera, not the aircraft: What the farmer is interested in is a picture — not the acquisition of the picture. Let sophisticated planning tools figure out precisely how to gather the right images, let autonomy take care of the nitty gritty details of flight dynamics, and let humans do what humans do best — specify high-level desires.
Video can be worth more than stills. Don’t discount how good farmers are at spotting things with their own eyes. 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. (Needless to say, this is only really practical with multicopters). Indeed, farmers may not even know what they’re looking for initially. Sometimes general situational awareness is the task, rather than delivering a specific data product (such as a mosaic).
NDVI is surprisingly easy to do. The gold standard of crop surveying is a “Normalized Differential Vegetation Index”, which 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’ve got a NDVI camera for less than $200.
Aim for crop consultants, not farmers. Most crop data services are provided by local consultants, such as agronomists, not the farmers themselves. At the moment, FAA regulations ban most commercial use of UAVs, defined as anything where money changes hands, so 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.
Time is money. Drones can get answers fast and cheaply, taking advantage of their “anywhere, anytime access to the sky” abilities. That means “timely data on time”, such as daily surveys to find exactly the right time to harvest. Likewise, changes over time can be equally illuminating. 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.
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. If data-driven crop management lead farmers to use less chemicals and water, perhaps someday “drone-guided agricultural” will be something consumers could be willing to pay more for. Done right, big data agriculture means “greener” crops and food. If consumers will pay a premium for organic, why not for this?
For apple growers in the eastern United States, the biggest problem – the most relentless, pervasive, unavoidable issue, which can ruin a whole crop if not managed aggressively – is apple scab. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool to combat the apple scourge: A drone.
The fungal infection causes dark scabby lesions on the leaves and skin of the apple, which leaves the flavour unaffected, but does effectively make it unsaleable.
“It’s a huge issue,” says Peter Wagner, owner of Applecrest Farm Orchards, a 110-acre orchard in south east New Hampshire. “Thirty years ago, you were allowed to have a scab on your apple that was probably 10 millimetres, or half the size of a dime, without a problem at all. Now you can’t put any of that in the apple pack, so it renders the apple unmarketable.”
Apple scab is less of an issue in drier regions, such as Washington state. But in places like New York, New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts, apple scab is the number one pathogen and apple farmers’ primary concern.
In recent decades, researchers have made strides in understanding the fungus’s life cycle, so farmers are spraying less than they used to, with better results. Some farmers even use predictive models, such as the Dutch program RIMpro to forecast the best spraying times. But apple scab is still a persistent battle, and it’s especially difficult – if not nearly impossible – for organic farmers to grow a scab-free crop.
So researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool for fighting apple scab: Drones.
“When you think about apple production now, a grower needs to walk through his orchard every day to make sure he sees any new insect pests or any new disease pests that come into an orchard,” says plant pathologist Kirk D. Broders, an assistant professor at UNH. “But when you’re talking about a 10, 20, 100-acre orchard, your ability to do that on a daily basis is almost impossible.”
But it is possible with a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, carrying an infra-red camera that takes multi spectral images of the orchard. A computer program crunches the wavelengths in each pixel, making it possible to hone in on colours and temperatures – and locate apple scab.
“If you had a UAV that had the capacity to go up once a day, take a digital image or multiple digital images – both in infra-red and then in normal spectrum — you could actually monitor your orchard”
Broders says the ultimate goal is to develop an orchard-monitoring UAV system that could be sold to growers.
It’s not the first time that multi spectral imaging has been used in agriculture. Researchers have analysed plants using lab equipment, and large farming operations can hire air planes to fly over and take multi spectral images of large swaths of corn or soy beans to monitor crop health.
“What we are trying to do is develop a system that allows us to do things in-between – so not at the single-plant lab scale, and not at the air plane several-fields-at-a-time scale,” Broders said. “We’re trying to develop a low-cost system that could actually be used by either individual researchers or individual growers.”
At Applecrest Farm, Peter Wagner calls the prospect of an affordable infra-red imaging system that could be used daily, “pretty awesome.”
“I think that’s a great endeavour – no question – particularly the fact that most scab that we don’t eradicate usually occurs at the top of the tree,” Wagner said. “In the old days with big trees, you could climb up and look around – which is time consuming – but now with the new plantings, the trees are younger, smaller, and it’s harder to climb because the limbs aren’t as strong.”
Wallhead and Broders envision apple growers using the drone-camera system in conjunction with the predictive models for apple scab – the real-time data that tell farmers when to spray.
“The UAV is really only one tool we’re using to manage apple scab, because apple scab is so difficult to control,” Broders said. “We’re using our predictive model to improve application of organically-certified compounds. We’re using the UAV for early detection. And then whenever possible, we’re utilizing resistant varieties to also help us reduce fungicide inputs and provide better control.”
One scab-resistant variety growing in the experimental research orchard at UNH’s Woodman Farm is Crimson Crisp, the product of collaboration among Purdue University, Rutgers and University of Illinois.
While apple scab is the main concern in the eastern U.S., the multi spectral data can also be used to detect other problems – from insect damage to nitrogen deficiency. Pinpointed applications of fertilizer, pesticides and fungicides mean growers are using less, which is better for the environment and consumers – as well as the farmer’s bottom line.
The drones could even be used to monitor forest health, scanning for disease or invasive beetles.
“I think it has applications even beyond agriculture,” Broders said. “And I think there are a number of people that are just now beginning to understand what these unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of doing.”
A few days ago the people in Deer Trail, Colorado made national news with a proposed ballot initiative to allow hunting licenses to shoot down flying drones.
Deer Trail would charge $25 for drone hunting licenses, and the town would offer a $100 bounty reward for shooters who bring in debris from an unmanned aircraft from the U.S. government.
This perfectly illustrates the growing paranoia associated with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) often referred to as drones.
But the good people living in the farming community of Deer Trail have obviously not been paying attention to the positive uses for drones, more specifically, the use of drones in agriculture.
Even though the vast majority of drone use today is government and military, one of the big emerging markets will be agriculture. Several new companies have begun moving into the ag-drone space, but there are a few short-term problems.
Current FAA rules limit their operation to under 400 feet and to steer clear of airports and crowds on the ground. But that will change in a couple years. The U.S. Congress has mandated the FAA incorporate drones into national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.
Many in this new industry are chomping at the bit to get started. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, once drones get okayed for the national air space, the first 3 years will produce $13.6 billion in economic activity and 34,000 new manufacturing jobs will get created.
The FAA estimated up to 10,000 drones could be airborne in the U.S. by 2018. Here’s why that number is far too low.
Today’s Ag Industry Drones
There are many possible uses for flying drones, and as we add capabilities, potential uses will grow dramatically.
We are limited in our thinking to what we see today, but flying drones can be built large enough to move people and houses, and small enough to be invisible to the human eye.
They provide an incredibly flexible platform, and simply adding elements like cameras, lights, audio, sensors, video projectors, or even a robotic arm can increase the utility of a drone exponentially. I’ve written about some of these possibilities in previous articles.
The automation of farming has led to fewer people tending massive estates, with many growing to tens of thousands of acres. This means there are fewer eyes inspecting crops, with less chance of catching problems like disease, infestations, soil issues, or other deficiencies.
Drones, however, have the ability to amp up awareness, giving farmers powerful tools for managing both the plant and its growing environment throughout its lifecycle.
Here are a few current examples of the type of inspections and research that can be automated through the use of drones:
Terrain, rock, tree, and obstacle mapping
Hybrid lifecycle charting
Chlorophyll damage detection
Ground cover profiling
Wind profile and wind shear assessment
Temperature and barometric pressure profiling
Spore, dust, pollen counts
Water quality assessments and survey
Methane, ammonia, and CO2 sensing
Trait assessment for breeding
Wireless data collection from ground sensors
Plant status tracking
Crop status (growing stage, yield estimates, etc.)
Precision Agriculture prescription data
Tiling/drainage evaluation and survey
Time-saving pre-assessment for field tasks
Oblique shots for de-tassel timing
Drainage estimates and topography
Planting evaluation and replanting requirements
Pathogen introduction and tracking + Weed levels
Much of the work in this industry will evolve around the following three phases of development.
Phase 1 – Data Drones
Most of the drones today are focused on developing better information about the plants, soil, and growing conditions. This information will allow farmers to be more aware of crop conditions and make better decisions.
Phase 2 – Protection Drones
Some companies are already working on Phase 2 drones capable of proactively protecting the crops from bugs, birds, disease, and other unwanted problems. Some of these capabilities will include:
Prevent birds from destroying high value crops
Identify insects, worms, and other unwanted plant devastation
Precision pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide application
Detect and track plant disease
Identify and thwart other wildlife that may consume or damage crops
Over time, protection drones may even be able to compensate for extreme weather conditions by applying warm foam during freezing conditions and even using wave frequencies to disrupt hail and other extreme weather conditions.
Eventually there will be flying drones with lasers mounted on them. Because of the possible dangers, their use will be highly restricted, at least for the most powerful ones. However, it’s entirely possible to visualize a type of drone capable of breaking rocks, killing pests, and even shooting mosquitoes.
Much of today’s work in this area is experimental and sounds more like science fiction than real science, but in a few years they may already be in use.
Phase 3 – Seeding, Harvesting Drones
Robotics researchers at the National Agricultural Research Center in Tsukuba, Japan have already experimented with rice-planting robots. And American farmers already ride semi-automatic tractors that use GPS positioning to plant perfect rows of wheat.
Another form of robotic seeding machine is being created by David Dorhout, founder of Dorhout R&D. His autonomous five-legged “Prospero” robot can move around in swarms with the ability to detect ideal planting spots, digging holes, planting the seeds and then applying fertilizer or herbicides.
As prices improve for specialty crops, farmers will invest heavily in automation to meet whatever unique foods consumers are demanding.
Over time, flying swarmbots will replace the ground-based drones, with thousands of tiny machines working in concert to replace the need for today’s massive pieces of equipment. Keep in mind that this will only happen if they provide farmers with a significant advantage over today’s equipment. They will need to be better, faster, cheaper, more efficient, or all of the above.
A recent study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that in a matter of years, the drone, or UAV, industry in the U.S. could produce up to 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025.
Aerial drones are about to become an everyday part of our lives. This is an industry in its infancy and agriculture will be the launch point and proving ground for many others.
Farmers will become thousands of times more precise in how they apply chemicals and fertilizers, saving themselves millions in the process.
Saving farmers 1% on inputs like herbicide and pesticide, and increasing their yields by 1%, that alone is a multi-billion dollar industry.
In the end, the world will grow far more food, to far more exacting quality standards, under virtually any weather conditions. And drones will be an essential part of making this happen.
Project URSULA (UAS Remote Sensing for Use in Land Applications) was launched by Welsh Assembly Minister for Rural Affairs, Elin Jones. The 2 year research and development programme will explore the potential for advanced remote sensing, using small unmanned aircraft, for use in land applications, primarily high input arable farming. The project is supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Gubua Group Flying Wing
URSULA will develop market-focussed data products based on imagery captured by a range of sensors mounted in small unmanned aircraft with a launch anywhere, anytime capability. Combining the innovative remote sensing platform with novel processing techniques, URSULA provides a disruptive technology which will open up new avenues for flexible, cost-effective, high resolution data provision. It is anticipated that this will accelerate the adoption of precision farming principles at a critical time for the industry.
There is a growing need for timely, accurate, detailed information on our land as we place greater pressure upon it. A rising population coupled with changes in demand and increasing scarcity of critical resources such as water and energy will place ever-increasing pressure on the land to perform multiple functions. Our food system needs to be sustainable – and economically viable – whilst adapting to climate change and contributing to climate change mitigation.
Project URSULA aims to satisfy some of these needs and provides an opportunity to develop and demonstrate a number of leading edge capabilities such as:
Increased flexibility in routine UAS operations
Advanced algorithm development and data interpretation
A key advantage of UAS remote sensing is the ability to obtain timely higher resolution data than can be currently be achieved, and to use this to drive improved performance, including:
Precision agriculture practices:
Managing fertilisers, nutrients
Variable seed rates
Soil moisture indicators
Disease and stress detection:
invasive weed mapping
Sustainable land management
Our engagement with stakeholders and end users ensures agriculturally led data interpretation and individual farm-level knowledge makes the most of the remote sensing data.
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — When David Dvorak launched Field of View in 2010, he foresaw a bright future for aerial crop imagery. Today, after working with farmers, agronomists and even a South American plantation manager, he’s more optimistic than ever.
“A few years ago, there was some behind-the-scenes interest in this,” says Dvorak, CEO of Grand Forks, N.D.-based Field of View.
Now, “I’m quietly confident there’s this perfect storm brewing where the precision agriculture market really takes off and the civil UAS (unmanned aircraft system) market takes off. They’re both on a trajectory to make that happen about the same time,” he says.
Field of View’s mission is to “bridge the gap between unmanned aircraft and precision agriculture,” according to the company’s website.
Its flagship product, GeoSnap, is an add-on device for multispectral cameras mounted on either manned or unmanned aircraft. Such cameras capture images in the red, green and near-infared bands, allowing users to visualize plant stress better than they can with most other camera systems, Dvorak says.
GeoSnap takes images captured by the multispectral camera and maps them with real-world coordinates, a process known as georeferencing. That allows users to know the aerial images’ exact location on the ground.
“It’s a very complex process. We developed a product that hopefully makes the process easier,” Dvorak says.
GeoSnap costs about $5,000 per unit, with the multispectral cameras costing about $4,000 each.
Field of View only recently began selling the add-on devices. So far, the company has sold a half-dozen, including one to NASA.
Dvorak thinks NASA will use the GeoSnap to learn more about vegetative cover on Earth, though he isn’t sure of specifics.
GeoSnap generally has drawn more interest overseas because other countries have fewer restrictions on air space, he says.