How UAV’s can help in Farming – An Introduction
No matter if you call then small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or the ubiquitous “Drone” moniker, UAV’s have massive potential in farming. Normally if you think about farming, you’d probably think about a farmer driving his tractor and caring for his cattle. My uncle owned a farm in rural Yorkshire in England, and I spent many summer working on his farm, so I thought I knew a little bit about farming. As it turns out I really had no idea.
Today farmers are at the forefront of technical innovation, and this methodology is generally termed “Precision Farming”. In Precision Farming (PA) tools are used to observe, measure and then react to variances within a crop. This allows farmers to determine if crops are under-watered, need pesticides etc. In this manner rather than treating a whole field/s, with water, pesticides, the areas that need treating can be identified and only they are treated. In this way, yields can be increased whilst using less resources such as precious water.
A good source for PA information is http://www.precisionag.com/
So what tools do PA use, how do they process the collected information, and how to they use that data to make decisions?
PA is formed around GPS and the ability to define exactly within a field, specific conditions that exist. By mapping these crop variances to a map location, then a recipe map can be derived which identifies what treatment the crop at location X,Y should have. As such, a single field can be broken down into lots of tiny sub-plots and the crop treatment tailored to that tiny sub-plot area.
Presently the observation is generally ground based, and uses such tools as GPS enabled tractors and combines monitor chlorophyll levels, water status and spectral monitoring. The collected data, is then processed to generate NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) maps, where crop stress can be identified and treatment undertaken by GPS enabled seeders, sprayers etc.
Presently NDVI mapping is expensive due to it been time and labor intensive for land based systems, and expensive when employing aerial or satellite mapping. The major benefit of the UAV is in collecting data to generate these NDVI maps, in a short time, at a low cost and with good accuracy. It’s the latest tool in the PA toolbox.
Here is a quick explanation of NDVI, http://www.wikiagro.com/en/NDVI_-_Vegetation_Index
So how can UAV’s help? Well with the advent of multirotor aerial systems with autopilots, you can plan a NDVI survey flight in a relatively short time.
The key tools are:
1. A Multirotor or Fixed wing UAV to do the aerial survey http://3drobotics.com/landing-product/
2. NDVI capable camera with a GPS which can geo-tag the photograph http://www.event38.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=CAM-NGB260
3. Mission Planning Software, to plan the flight including take-off point, survey flight path including where to take the photographs, and where to land. Also for safety fail-safes are built into the mission, such that if a communication or telemetry link breaks or the UAV goes outside an expected flight corridor (geo-fencing) it returns and lands safely http://copter.ardupilot.com/wiki/mission-planning-and-analysis/
4. Post Analysis Software, which stitches the many photographs together and then processes them to show crop stress analysis http://pix4d.com/ Using this NDVI map the recipe map can then be derived.
Once you have these tools, it is relatively simple to plan and execute a mission. Today’s PA UAV’s are designed to be user friendly and operated via laptops, tablets or even smart-phones. The requirement to be able to know how to fly these multirotros is removed, thus removing the barrier to using them just as tools. Today you don’t need a Ph.D in Aeronautics to be able to capitalize on this technology. It’s been designed to be user friendly and safe, but also intuitive to use. If it’s not, why use it?
So this is a brief introduction to using UAV’s in PA. In the following blogs I’ll cover the 4 points above, picking a multirotor, NVDI cameras, planning a mission and then the post analysis. Also I’ll cover important aspects such as safety, UAV regulations and current news.