UAVs: Taking Agronomy To New Heights

Drone
Drones are unmanned, meaning that they fly on a predetermined flight path.

Dale Cowan, a Certified Crop Advisor based in southwestern Ontario, is part of the region’s largest co-op, AGRIS Co-operative Ltd. AGRIS is a large farm input supply co-op owned by southwestern Ontario farmers. As senior agronomist, it is part of Cowan’s responsibility to provide quality agronomic and grain marketing solutions for his customers.

That means being a leader — and staying a leader — particularly when it comes to precision farming technology. AGRIS recently added a new member to their ever-expanding team — an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone.

New Teammate

AGRIS serves over 1,200 members, says Cowan, and over 5,000 farmers in Essex, Kent, Lambton, Middlesex and parts of Elgin County. “We offer pretty extensive precision ag services,” says Cowan, “but wanted to provide another layer of information for our customers.”

“We do the standard soil sampling that everyone does. We get yield monitor data from farmers on the combines. Not all farmers have yield monitors. Not all farmers are mapping yield and not all yield maps are particularly useful at times,” says Cowan. “Getting a look from above the crops, we know the fields are inherently variable and the crops tell us that by yielding differently.”

The drone began work in March 2013. Its first job was to take bare-ground images in the spring. Getting an aerial view, says Cowan, is another way to look at the differentials across the field. To do so, the drone takes images using either a standard digital camera or an infrared camera several times throughout the season.

“The nice thing about the drone,” says Cowan, “is that it’s totally autonomous. We can fly it in any field we want at any time — weather permitting, of course. We don’t have to access satellites or buy large tracks of imagery from other aerial platforms. It’s something we can do on a field-by-field basis.”

Obtaining Permission

Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the venture has been getting the permits to fly. In Canada, in order to fly you need what’s called an SFOC — Special Flight Operations Certificate — from Transport Ca­na­­da. The first step in the process is to submit an application to let Transport Canada know the intended flight path. The application should also include technical information about the unit itself. Most importantly, though, the person operating the equipment must demonstrate a working knowledge of airspace. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the process, as it requires extensive knowledge of the surrounding airspace and its rules and regulations.

Drones are unmanned, meaning that they fly on a predetermined flight path. This raises obvious concerns for Transport Canada, who want to know that it can be controlled at any time.

“If you’re using a remote control, then it’s not considered unmanned,” says Cowan. “If it’s unmanned, you have to have permits. The process takes anywhere from six to eight weeks
to get that permit.”

Transport Canada’s Website does show what they’re looking for in an application, but Cowan knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. He opted to taked an abbreviated ground school program so that he could better understand airspace.

“They just want you to be able to demonstrate your ability, not only to fly your craft, but to also understand the rules of the airspace that you’re operating in,” says Cowan.

Airspace Rules

The first step is to understand the difference between controlled and uncontrolled airspace, says Cowan. The five nautical miles of space surrounding an airport is considered controlled airspace.

“You can still fly there, but you have to file what is called a ‘notam’ that says that you will be in the area at this time period, at this altitude at this coordinate,” says Cowan. “It lets other people who might be in the area know that you’re in the area and they’ll stay away from it. When you’re done flying, you lift the notam with Nav Canada.”

You still have to have a working knowledge to fly outside of controlled airspace, says Cowan, who uses a guide that shows every single airstrip in Ontario, including grass strips that farmers have registered. He has to know if he’s within three to five nautical miles of any one of them, and must file a notam to let people know that he’s in the area. If he’s outside of that, in what is considered Class G airspace, then it’s open-sky policy.

“We fly at 400 feet,” says Cowan. “No other commercial airplane should ever be below 500 feet. Tech­nically, we should never run into each other. On approach and takeoff, of course, these planes are going to be below 500 feet, so I have to know where I am relative to an airstrip.”

Learning Lessons

As expected, the first year was not without its challenges. In fact, Cowan says he learned quite a few valuable lessons. First, he learned that the drone could only be flown under the right conditions, which was sometimes a limiting factor.

“If you can’t spray, you can’t fly,” he says. “And there were an awful lot of days where you couldn’t fly.”

He also learned what factors would cause image variations. Topography, for one, creates lighter and darker spots in the images. Also, the time of day the images are taken can have an impact on quality as well. When the sun is overhead, says Cowan, you can actually pick up the shadows of plants on the ground.

The crop’s stage can also impact image quality — a lesson Cowan learned when wheat crops started to head. “When the head starts to come out it’s a totally different green color than the rest of the plant, so you have to adjust the readings on your final maps,” he says.

“We quickly learned that the field does indeed have to be bare ground, too,” says Cowan. “Any residue on the ground covered the image. Those with ground cover were unsuccessful.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, is learning how to manage customer expectations. “Like anything in precision ag,when you get a map, basically what the map tells you is where you need to go and practice good basic agronomy,” says Cowan. “The drone doesn’t give you answers. It just gives you an image.”

“My advice?” he concludes. “Have a very clear idea of why you want one. Some of the things that people are looking for include formal scouting, foliar diseases and when to put chemicals on. I just look at it as another tool, and a different view. And the view from above is always more revealing than the one at ground level.”

Topics:

Leave a Reply

One comment on “UAVs: Taking Agronomy To New Heights

  1. Good piece, and yes, UAV’s have their nuances!

    If you are using a UAV system for agriculture that utilizes a gyrostablized camera, you are indeed able to fly in windier conditions. Many commercial systems do not have this however.

Equipment Stories

Deere Twitter
EquipmentTop 10 Twitter Pics for #Plant17
April 26, 2017
Despite some wet weather in parts of the Midwest, growers and ag retailers are working feverishly to plant this year’s Read More
AGCO Ratliff featured
EquipmentAGCO Mourns Passing of Company Founder, Industry Visionary
April 25, 2017
AGCO Corp., a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment and solutions, mourns the passing of founder and former President, Read More
Growmark FS Outlet
SoftwareKnoa Software Solution Helps GROWMARK Boost System Performance
April 19, 2017
Knoa Software, a leading provider of user experience management (UEM) software, has announced that GROWMARK, Inc., a regional agricultural cooperative Read More
Drone
EquipmentFarming Drones: The Future Of Agriculture?
April 7, 2017
Chances are, you already know drones are amazing. After all, this is something DroneLife readers just understand. But if you’re Read More
Trending Articles
Crop InputsFlying Under the Radar No More, FMC Goes Big
April 13, 2017
Describing FMC as “under the radar,” admittedly, is probably a stretch. But in a snap of the fingers, FMC upped Read More
Young Corn Plants
Crop NutritionStill Hunting Yields
April 1, 2017
There’s no denying it — the agricultural marketplace today is undergoing a fundamental shift in fortunes. Not too many years Read More
Nutrients for Life Foundation Teacher
FertilizerNutrients For Life Foundation Celebrates 10 Years Teaching Fertilizer Education
March 23, 2017
Those in agriculture know fertilizer is a vital ingredient to grow strong, productive crops. In fact, fertilizer is responsible for Read More
AdjuvantsA New Weed-Control Era Begins: But First, One Last Obstacle
March 4, 2017
There is trepidation, there is reluctance, and there is excitement. Ag retailers feel it all about the new dicamba and Read More
LIFT Academy video screenshot
Crop InputsLIFT Agriculture Academy: A Q&A With West Central Distribution’s Dean Hendrickson
March 1, 2017
West Central Distribution recently launched its LIFT Agriculture Academy, a new, premiere training and professional development resource for West Central’s ag Read More
Farmer and aptop
Matt Hopkins10 Warning Signs Your Website Is Grossly Outdated
February 8, 2017
Your Website is often a visitor’s first impression of your ag retail business. A positive first impression can set the Read More
Latest News
ManagementWashington Update, Dow-DuPont Earnings, and the Passing…
April 27, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj talk about the latest Beltway news, crop protection company 1st quarter numbers, and the Read More
BRANDT
CropLife 100Former PotashCorp COO Joins BRANDT Board
April 27, 2017
BRANDT has announced the appointment of another industry veteran to its board of directors. David Delaney, most recently EVP and Read More
Syngenta headquarters in Basel, Switzerland
Crop InputsFortune: Inside China’s $43 Billion Bid for Food …
April 26, 2017
(Via Fortune.com) The worst famine in human history occurred in China from 1959 to 1961. An estimated 34 million people Read More
Syngenta Sign
Crop InputsSyngenta Announces Changes in Board of Directors
April 26, 2017
ChemChina and Syngenta announced changes relating to the new Board of Directors of Syngenta following the closing of the ChemChina Read More
Crop InputsBioSafe Systems Introduces PerCarb Broad-Spectrum Bacte…
April 26, 2017
BioSafe Systems announces PerCarb (Sodium Carbonate Peroxyhydrate), a new alternative to potassium bicarbonate and lime sulfur products for use in Read More
Deere Twitter
EquipmentTop 10 Twitter Pics for #Plant17
April 26, 2017
Despite some wet weather in parts of the Midwest, growers and ag retailers are working feverishly to plant this year’s Read More
Donald Trump
Crop InputsTrump Targets Agriculture with Latest Executive Order
April 26, 2017
(Via UPI.com) President Donald Trump on Tuesday took executive action in an effort to help grow the domestic agriculture industry Read More
AGCO Ratliff featured
EquipmentAGCO Mourns Passing of Company Founder, Industry Vision…
April 25, 2017
AGCO Corp., a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment and solutions, mourns the passing of founder and former President, Read More
Engenia soybeans
Crop InputsINNVICTIS CROP CARE Introduces VANDAL MOC Soybean Herbi…
April 25, 2017
INNVICTIS CROP CARE, LLC has announced the U.S. EPA registration for VANDAL MOC, a combination of sulfentrazone plus metolachlor. VANDAL Read More
Kochia
HerbicidesINNVICTIS CROP CARE Launches STAVE Post-Emerge Broadlea…
April 25, 2017
INNVICTIS CROP CARE, LLC has introduced STAVE as the newest addition to­ its expanding portfolio. STAVE will be a great Read More
Sonny Perdue
LegislationSonny Perdue Confirmed by Senate as Next Agriculture Se…
April 25, 2017
After months without a secretary of agriculture, the Senate voted Monday evening to confirm former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to Read More
BPIA logo
Seed/BiotechBPIA Files Comments with USDA
April 24, 2017
The Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA) has filed comments with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Plant Read More
Eric SfiligojHope for Application Equipment Sales
April 24, 2017
The old saying goes that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” If this is indeed the case, then things may Read More
Stewardship video screenshot
ManagementNew Video Raises Awareness of 2,4-D Stewardship
April 24, 2017
A new public service video developed and produced by the 2,4-D Research Task Force, in conjunction with the American Soybean Read More
ManagementAn Inside Look at Award Winning Ag Retailer Gar Tooteli…
April 20, 2017
CropLife Editor Eric Sfiligoj discusses An Inside Look at Award Winning Ag Retailer Gar Tootelian Read More
Students Soybean Field
Industry NewsMACA Announces 2017 Young Leader Scholarship Recipients
April 19, 2017
The Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) Board of Directors selected 11 college students to receive the MACA Young Leader Scholarship Read More
Growmark FS Outlet
SoftwareKnoa Software Solution Helps GROWMARK Boost System Perf…
April 19, 2017
Knoa Software, a leading provider of user experience management (UEM) software, has announced that GROWMARK, Inc., a regional agricultural cooperative Read More
Crop InputsFBN Publishes ‘Voice of the Farmer’ Agricul…
April 17, 2017
Farmer’s Business Network (FBN) released today its “The Voice of the Farmer”, which the company is describing as “a special Read More