Best Agricultural Drones of 2018: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

Everything to do with commercial agriculture involves a long-term commitment and a vast range of cumbersome but important processes. The good news is that, through the use of technology, some of these processes can be simplified. Agricultural drones have been changing the face of farming and cultivation heavily the past 3-5 years, and provide brand new opportunities to make agricultural processes easier and a lot more efficient. They also completely change the way that many farmers and other entities go about their business. It is also important to note that the use of such technology is also a lot safer than the manual labor of farm workers.

These drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to monitor crop progress, check storm damage, and make sure that both crops and herds are healthy.

Precision agriculture is a farming management concept that uses drones for agriculture to observe, measure, and respond to variability found in crops to increase yields and reduce crop damage.

Weather conditions are becoming more intense and agriculture is not anymore an art, it’s a very complex science in which farmers and workers have to be prepared. Also, other very important elements such as drought and pesticide use require farmers to make very important decisions. Agricultural drones are so powerful and innovative that they can ease the burden a bit. Drone technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we do a lot of things. Drones are everywhere today, from photography to agriculture, and today we’re going to take a look at the best agricultural drones out in 2017.

But aside from giving us the opportunity to deliver packages straight to doorsteps or capture the perfect wedding footage, it’s obvious that UAVs stand to make a meaningful difference in any industry where ground needs to be covered quickly and a perfect example of this is in the world of agriculture. Drones have an important role to play in the future of farming, from automated planting to crop management and real-time monitoring.

 

Who Is This Guide For?

This guide is for farmers and agriculture service professionals who want to monitor the health of crops and livestock using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

This guide covers everything you need to know:

  • a short list of UAV surveyors
  • popular imaging software packages and services
  • drone reviews of the leading UAVs used for precision agriculture
  • the latest FAA regulations governing use of drones in agriculture

This guide will tell you everything you need to know to select and purchase the right UAV for your needs if you are interested in flying your own fixed wing or multi-rotor agriculture drone.

This guide will make you a smarter buyer if you plan to hire a third party to survey crops for you.

In this agricultural drone buyer’s guide you’ll learn about:

  • Why and how to use drones to scout fields and crops to check the plants
  • The best agricultural drones available today (multi rotor and fixed wings)
  • The different hardware and software components required
  • The pros and cons of using drones vs. other aerial survey methods
  • Tips to get started – including a short list of agricultural drone service companies you can hire to survey for you, and a short list of RTF drone packages designed specifically for agriculture.

 

Serious Professionals Only, Please

Agriculture drones are advanced data-gathering tools for serious professionals, and not your run-of-the-mill consumer-grade camera drone or racing drone. They are not cheap, and the prices for complete, RTF agricultural drone systems range from $1,500 to well over $25,000.

Two types of people might want to own an agriculture drone:

  1. Agriculture service providers and other professionals who fly drones for farmers
  2. Farmers who want to fly their own drone

If you fit into either of these categories, it is important to remember that:

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) views all agricultural drone operations as commercial drone operation, which means that the drone operator must have a Remote Pilot Certificate to fly. And even if no money changes hands, this is true.

In other words, there’s no such thing as an amateur agriculture drone operator, so run – far, far away if you get pitched by a drone outfit claiming they don’t need a remote pilot certificate to survey your field.

 

The Best Agricultural Drones/UAVs (Ready to Fly) on the Market

Here are the best RTF agriculture drone/UAV/UAS systems currently available on the market, both multi-rotor and fixed-wing.

All of these unmanned aerial survey drones are delivered ready-to-fly. They are equipped with all the hardware, sensors and software you’ll need to survey your farmland, track your livestock, and monitor the health of your crops.

However, the market is changing fast and some of the early entrants are gone now. Make sure you check the manufacturer’s website for the latest details because most suppliers update their prices, software packages, rigs, and features on what seems like a monthly basis.

 

The Best Fixed-Wing Agricultural Drones

Fixed-wing agricultural drones can cover up to 10 times the acreage that a typical quadcopter can cover in a single flight, and they are the best choice when you have to cover a lot of ground, quickly.

That said, due to the speed image quality can suffer, for instance fixed wing UAVs are often unable to capture survey-grade 3D / topographic detail.

 

PrecisionHawk Lancaster 5

PrecisionHawk takes a forward position in all aspects of UAV technology. They are a prominent voice in drone regulations efforts, and instrumental in the work of drone integration in the US. The Lancaster can be used across industries: including energy, mining, and inspection. However, its ease of use, the widest range of aerial sensors and durability make it perfect for agriculture, especially in difficult conditions.

Lancaster 5 is their latest release. It adds more intelligent on-board flight control, a longer wingspan to improve stability, a new tail structure, and a ruggedized chassis that is more durable on hard landings.

Specs

  • Weight: 2404 grams (5.3 lbs)
  • Payload: 998 grams (2.2 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 1.5 meters (4.9 feet)
  • Flight Time: 45 minutes
  • Flight Range: 1.9 km (1.2 miles)
  • Cruise Speed: 12-16 m/s (43.2-57.6 km/h)
  • Maximum Speed: 22 m/s (79 km/h)
  • One-button press to launch
  • 5-channel multispectral camera available
  • Data resolution down to 1 cm/pixel
  • Plug-and-Play sensor bay
  • Flight Altitude: 91.4 meters (300 feet)
  • Survey Altitude: 50m-300m (164ft-984ft)
  • Survey Area per Flight: 300 acres
  • Maximum Operating Temperature: 40C/104F

 

Intelligent and Aware

The Lancaster carries on-board sensors that measure humidity, temperature, air pressure along with incident light, all in real time. It reacts to changing weather conditions, changing wind loads, payloads, visibility, etc using artificial intelligence.

 

Flight Control

PrecisionHawks’ InFlight flight monitoring and tracking software gives you real-time data on battery life, aircraft performance, altitude, position, and flight path.

The drone adjusts to unpredictable environmental conditions and various payloads with smart flight controls, to get the data you need.

 

Flight Planning

Flight planning couldn’t be simpler. The Lancaster 5 is fully autonomous and simple to use – just select your target altitude and desired ground resolution, and the drone creates a flight plan automatically. Then, just toss the aircraft like a paper plane to launch and it automatically optimizes its flight plan to collect data in the most efficient way. After completing the mission, the Lancaster will land itself, automatically.

 

Sensors

The Lancaster platform is built on open source software. This feature makes it easy for developers to design and integrate sensors for any need.

A wide range of sensors are available to capture multispectral, thermal/IR, visual, LIDAR and hyperspectral data, and now you have access to more types of data than ever before to deliver the right information for your application.

The Lancaster 5 is equipped with plug-n-play sensors. The best thing about these sensors is that they can be swapped in the field without configuration.

Due to the open source quality of the platform, new sensors are being constantly developed, which allows researchers and businesses to integrate their own sensor types with the software quickly and easily. A ground penetrating radar sensor will be a particularly interesting upcoming innovation.

 

Mapping and Analysis

The Lancaster 5 comes with PrecisionHawk’s amazing DataMapper data management and analysis solution, which is available as desktop software or through the cloud. DataMapper produces accurate 2D and 3D maps into geo-referenced mosaics.

From there, field data can be processed using indexers and algorithms on the DataMapper AlgoMarket.

On AlgoMarket, you can select and buy data processing for any purpose. There are a wide range of indices, including:

  • Water pooling
  • OSAVI (Optimized Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index)
  • Volume measurement
  • Field Uniformity
  • Improved NDVI
  • Plant count
  • Plant height and much more

Introducing the Lancaster 5: Your Premium Enterprise Drone

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SenseFly eBee SQ

Drone giant Parrot has put faith and investment into UAV agriculture startups in the past. One of its companies has now produced the eBee SQ. This precision agricultural drone can make a big impact in the farming sector because it is designed to monitor crops from planting to harvest.

The eBee SQ is the most efficient, large-coverage agricultural drone on the market, and it is a proven and popular choice among agricultural service providers who need to cover a lot of ground, fast. It can cover hundreds of acres in a single flight – up to 10 times more than quadcopter drones. The eBee series has logged more than 300,000 missions to this day.

Specs

  • Weight: 1100 grams (2.4 lbs)
  • Flight Time: 55 minutes
  • Wingspan: 110 cm (43.3 inches)
  • Survey Area per Flight: 500 acres
  • Wind resistance: 45 km/h (12m/s or 28 mph)
  • Cruise Speed: 40-110 km/h (11-30 m/s or 25-68 mph)
  • 12 cm/pixel resolution
  • 400 feet elevation
  • Completed with eMotion AG
  • Sequoia multi-spectral sensor gives you more accurate data than NIR options
  • Radio Link Range: 3000 meters nominal (up to 8000 meters in ideal conditions) / 1.86 mi (up to 4.97 mi)

 

500 Acres in a Single Flight

The eBee SQ is very fast and it can capture multi-spectral and visual data on hundreds of acres of crops in a single charge. This means fewer flights in total, for extremely efficient crop monitoring and analysis. When there is less time spent collecting data, there is more time acting on it.

You can process that data once you’ve captured it, using any popular software of your choice such as AIRINOV, MicaSense ATLAS or Pix4Dmapper Ag/Pro software to create vegetation index maps.

These are some of the data you can capture in a single eBee flight:

  • Topography / 3D mapping
  • Soil temperature
  • Soil H20 levels
  • Plant counts
  • Vegetation indices (CWSI, MCARI, NDRE, CCCI, NDVI, etc)

 

Flight Planning Simplified

The eBee SQ includes their proprietary eMotion Ag flight planning and ground station software. This makes the process of creating a flight plan really simple.

Upload your field boundaries from your existing FMIS system, such as Trimble’s FarmWork or Ag Leader’s SMS to get started. Also, they can be drawn on-screen.

The pilot needs to establish the area to survey to launch the mission, set the image resolution and define the desired image overlap. After that, the software generates an optimal flight plan.

The eBee also comes with analytic software. This feature allows you to sit back, watch the data come in and make decisions based on the latest information.

 

A Complete Agricultural Solution

The eBee is easy to fly. It comes with advanced, flight planning, flight management and image processing software designed specifically to work within a complete drone-to-tractor workflow, and senseFLY’s Sequoia 5-spectrum sensor (4 spectral bands + visible/RGB).

 

Take Action Now

You can then generate prescription maps using Pix4Dmapper Ag using your index maps, and upload them into your FMIS system or a tractor. You can also process the data further using another index map solution such as ArcGIS, QGIS, AgPixel, SMS, Global mapper and other popular GIS systems.

There are 4 reasons to choose the eBee SQ:

  • Affordable
  • Workflow compatible
  • Larger coverage
  • More precise

eBee SQ - The Advanced Agricultural Drone

The eBee SQ by senseFly is an advanced agricultural drone that offers: precise multispectral imaging (courtesy of its Parrot Sequoia sensor), large single-flight coverage, and true ag workflow...

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Other Fixed-Wing Agricultural Drones

  • Trimble UX5 : Trimble is the French aerospace company. It sells its highly advanced UX5 drone in the US through local resellers. The UX5 can capture data down to a 2cm/pixel resolution using an optional MicaSense RedEdge or 24MP visual camera. It operates in the harshest of environments. Software, hardware, and processing are included.

Flying the Trimble UX5 in Agriculture

The all-new Trimble® UX5 Aerial Imaging Solution is setting the standard for fast and safe aerial data collection by offering a complete system with powerful technologies such as reversed...

  • AgEagle RX60 : AgEagle RX60 is a super-rugged ‘flying wing’ made of carbon fiber and fiberglass. Using GoPro and other sensors, this UAV captures NDVI, NIR and visual images. It can fly for up to 60 minutes on a charge. Package includes aircraft, training, software, camera, and launcher.

Setting up the AgEagle RX60

This tutorial shows you the proper steps for setting up the AgEagle RX60 for a flight.

  • Sentera Phoenix 2 : This UAV is complete software, hardware, and data storage solution designed for crop surveying. It covers 100 acres per flight, and captures RGB visual, NIR, NDVI and Live NDVI (streaming) during same flight.

Sentera how-to: Launch your Phoenix 1 drone

  • AgDrone by HoneyComb: Package includes control software/flight planning and all the hardware you need. It has flight time of about 55 minutes. This UAV is a complete software/hardware/data storage package with a variety of sensors available including NIR (thermal imaging), visual stereoscopic, and NDVI.

HoneyComb AgDrone System in Action

HoneyComb's AgDrone System is a complete end-to-end aerial imaging and surveying solution that's deployable within minutes. Drive out to the field, plan a mission, throw in a battery, and toss...

The Best Multi-Rotor Agricultural Drones

For close-in scouting, spotting and detailed surveying tasks, a multi-rotor drone is a better choice than a fixed-wing drone.

Flying a multi rotor drone gives you far more control over every image you capture, and as a result, accuracy and resolution are often better than fixed-wing UAVs can deliver.

The disadvantage is that you have far less range and coverage per flight, because most multi-rotor agricultural drones can’t cover more than 50 acres between charges.

 

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Sentera NDVI Upgrade for DJI Phantom 4 PRO

This is a great starter agricultural drone, especially for scouting, and it is the best solution for those who don’t already have a Phantom, or for those who want a dedicated agricultural drone.

The Sentera NDVI Single Sensor transforms the Phantom 4 Pro into a simple-to-use and powerful precision scouting tool.

The kit integrates a 1.2MP NIR global shutter camera alongside your existing Phantom camera. This feature allows you to get the best of both worlds – NIR photos for NDVI indexing, plus a fully-gimbaled color camera for scouting.

The Sentera NDVI sensor weighs in at 30 grams and features a global shutter for distortion-free near-infrared (NIR) images used to produce accurate normalized difference red edge (NDRE) crop health maps and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI).

Sentera’s NDVI upgrade allows a Phantom 4 Pro drone to capture high-resolution color. This provides farmers and agronomists with a precise, affordable solution to help determine the health and vibrancy of a crop.

The package includes a free version of Sentera’s AgVault image processing software, so data can be viewed at the field’s edge, where immediate action can be taken.

However, it is important to note that there are two disadvantages:

  • attaching a second camera cancels DJI’s warranty
  • your Phantom 4 PRO will have to be shipped to Sentera to perform the upgrade

DJI Drone NDVI Camera Kit for Agricultural Use

The NDVI Camera Unit is a custom NDVI camera for the DJI platforms. Upgrade your current platform into an NDVI scouting device instantly by simply switching out the standard DJI Camera and...

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PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package

The Crop Scouting package includes DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro coupled with PrecisionHawk’s flight and analytics software. The package also includes InField flight monitoring software, visual sensor, DataMapper Lite image processing software, and InFlight flight control and monitoring mobile app that allows you to control your drone using your Smartphone.

The Phantom 4 PRO is an amazing camera drone that is more than capable of most visual surveying tasks. However, there are additional costs to turn this package into a complete crop surveying solution.

This package is geared towards growers who want to improve production efficiency across their precision farming operations by implementing drone technology. PrecisionHawk is making it simpler for growers to adopt drone technology and prove the return on investment by launching a simple to use and low cost smarter farming kit, and the goal of the package is to give growers a way to perform fast aerial processing and analysis for same day information delivery.

However, this package also has its limitations, for instance:

  • to extract value out of the images you shoot you’ll probably need to buy additional Datamapper algorithms
  • it has no multispectral sensor to capture NDVI data

UNBOXING: PrecisionHawk Smarter Farming Package

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AGCO Solo

The AGCO SOLO add-on kit is based on the 3DR Solo quadcopter. The days of expensively purchasing low-resolution satellite imaging or inefficiently scouting crops on foot are over, and AGCO SOLO add-on kit is your solution for better farm management. The kit includes a GoPro near-infrared camera for monitoring plant health, and a GoPro Hero 4 camera for color imaging.

The SOLO AGCO utilizes intuitive mission planning and cloud-based, high-resolution mapping software, providing farmers an easy way to identify problem areas in their fields quickly and efficiently.

This UAV also includes one year of Agribotix imaging and analysis software for precision agriculture. It has a flight time of about 20 minutes with camera and gimbal.

AGCO SOLO UAV - Drones & Crop Mapping

This video explains operation and features of AGCO SOLO UAV. SOLO has auto-takeoff and auto landing capabilities. The Return Home feature will bring SOLO back to you at anytime, including...

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DJI Smarter Farming Package

Everything is integrated, tested and ready to go to work, out of the box in DJI’s Smarter Farming package. This is an affordable and simple-to-fly agricultural surveying solution for serious farm operators and professional agricultural service providers.

The DJI Smart Farming Package includes their easy-to-fly Matrice 100 flying platform with two onboard sensors (multispectral sensor, which is perfect for plant health monitoring and visible sensor, which is perfect for plant counting and 3D drainage mapping) installed.

The package comes with PrecisionHawk’s excellent DataMapper solution, which can be used to analyze 2D/3D orthomosaic map and automatically collect high-quality images.

It is important to note that unlike Sentera’s bolt-on NDVI camera, DJI’s warranty remains intact.

The Smarter Farming Package by PrecisionHawk and DJI

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Sentera Omni Ag

The versatile Omni agriculture drone is paired with a Sentera Double 4K sensor. This winning combination takes crop scouting to the next level and allows growers to scout crops using a gimbaled, game-changing Sentera Double 4K sensor  featuring LiveNDVI video  capability, fast image collection, and ability to capture high-resolution, normalized difference vegetation (NDVI) and near-infrared (NIR) – all at the same time!

Uniquely, the Omni Ag drone can stream live NDVI crop data as it flies. This means you get instant feedback on crop health and you can take action before it lands.

You use Sentera’s AgVault 2.0 software to handle image processing.

You can control your Omni Ag Drone using the dedicated flight controller or your Smartphone.

 

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Other Multi-Rotor Agricultural Drones

  • InDago AG: This UAV is built by Lockheed Martin. The InDago AG can cover 75 acres per flight and has a flight time of about 45 minutes. This is almost double that of any other quadcopter.

Indigo Ag Innovation

  • AgBot by Aerial Technology International : ATI’s package features: 38 mph flight speed, 16 mile flight range, 1 fps data capture, 26 minutes flight time, rugged carbon fiber chassis, and IR, Multispectral and HD video modules (quick release/swappable).

AgBOT Drone: Multispectral Camera and NDVI to Help Farmers

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  • SenseFly eXom: Parrot, the French drone manufacturer developed the eXom specifically for agriculture applications. This UAV includes an image processing pipeline based on Pix4D’s cloud-based solution.

senseFly eXom Mapping and Inspection Drone

senseFly's eXom drone is designed for professional commercial use on tasks such as checking on the integrity of bridges. It is a quadcopter with camera/ultrasonic sensor combos placed around...

First Decision: Fixed-Wing or Multi-Rotor Agricultural Drone?

Fixed-wing drones are often preferred by farmers because they can spend more time in the air and cover more area than multi-rotor platforms. Fixed-wing drones are best suited for large, open-field scanning.

Fixed-wing drones often carry more payload than a multi-rotor. This means more sensors so more information can be captured in a single flight, which can decrease the total time to collect data for a given acre.

Fixed-wing drones are also more expensive. After being fitted with sensors, they normally cost $5,000 to $25,000 or more.

Due to their maneuverability, multi-rotor agricultural drones are better-suited to 3D scanning of fields and objects and precision imaging of small/constrained areas.

Flight times for quads and other multi-rotors are about 1/2 that of a fixed-wing drone, and also payloads on many multi-rotors are less than fixed-wings. That’s the reason why most multi-rotors only carry one or two sensors and as a result, covering an entire field can take twice as long as with a fixed wing.

Multi-rotor drones are usually cheaper than fixed-wings. They start at about $1,500-$10,000 for a professional-grade camera drone packaged with multi-spectral cameras and software for agriculture image processing.

 

The Best of Both Worlds

Some farmers and operators buy less expensive versions of both, rather than opting for one type of drone.

A small inexpensive multi-rotor is used for fast scouting missions, for spot-checking trouble areas more closely, and for handling area a plane cannot fly over. On the other hand, a fixed-wing drone is used for large open spaces where long, unobstructed straight-line passes are possible.

Lots of farmers today start by purchasing an NDVI-equipped pre-tested solution like DJI’s Smarter Farming Package, or a RTF $1,500 quadcopter like a Phantom 4 PRO.

They may upgrade to more expensive and more efficient multi-rotor and fixed-wing packages after testing the ROI of drone surveying. These packages can be integrated with their Agronomy Management Systems (AMS), and Farm Management Information Systems (FMIS).

 

Capturing the Data: Sensors and Imaging

There are many options of imaging sensors on the market today for agriculture drones, and options range from $200 for a GoPro HD camera to well over $50,000 for a hyper-spectral camera.

 

Cameras

high-resolution camera is the most common and cheapest type of sensor. This camera takes visible wavelength images (VIS). Also, when equipped with the right filters, several of these cameras can also take near-infrared images (NIR).

12 megapixels is the minimum image resolution required for agriculture applications. Popular drone cameras such as the GoPro Hero 3 and Hero 4 are capable of capturing this resolution.

You want a camera with a wide-field, wide-angle or “fish-eye” lens, because these lenses tend to shoot more area in a single shot. And don’t worry about the image distortion. Quality image processing software will eliminate this during processing.

Here are some of the best cameras used in agriculture today:

  • Canon EOS Rebel SL1 DSLR Camera Kit : only shoots VIS images.
  • Sony QX1 : Captures VIS images only. This is a compact, lightweight mirrorless camera. It captures 20 megapixel high precision Images in RAW and JPEG.
  • GoPro Hero: Captures VIS images only. This camera is lightweight and weather-proof. The Hero is probably the most popular agricultural camera in use today, and it is used on lower-cost quadcopter drones.
  • Zenmuse X3: Captures VIS images only. DJI systems use this gimbal and camera system.
  • MaxMax : Captures NIR and VIS versions. It offers a line of Nikon, Sony and other model NIR (near-infrared) cameras priced from $500 to $5,000

 

Multi-Spectral

With Multi-spectral imaging sensors you can see things you cannot see in the visual spectrum, for example wet patches on the ground.

You can use the MicaSense Red multi-spectral sensor. It lists for $6,450.

Another option is the Sentera NDVI upgrade for the DJI Phantom series drones , which is a new ultra-lightweight NDVI sensor for Phantom 4 and Phantom 3. It shoots near-infrared (NIR), visual-band (VIS), and NDVI data together during a single flight. It is important to note that the DJI gimbaled camera is not modified.

 

LIDAR

LIDAR is a precise remote sensing technology. It measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. LIDAR is commonly used to develop an accurate 3D model of an area, and to measure buildings and land masses with precision.

LIDAR sensors are priced from $60,000 to $150,000, which means they are very expensive.

 

Thermal

Airborne thermal sensors can see hotspots and measure changes in plant and land temperature over time, and they can also detect the presence of water due to its cooling effect. This can be extremely helpful in spotting crop damage due to drought and/or seasonal problems.

 

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Agricultural Drone Service Providers

There are thousands of drone operators in the US today. About one-third claim to offer services useful to agriculture businesses.

The FAA’s new regulations allow for new pilots to simply take a written test to get their remote pilot certificate. Thanks to these new regulations, thousands of new operators will soon be hitting the market.

However, that doesn’t mean these new pilots know how to fly safely, nor does it mean they know how to capture orthomosaic images for your farming operation.

Here are several reputable, experienced and certified drone operators and image service providers that provide fully supported, user-friendly, drone-enabled technologies and services developed for agriculture:

  • Measure32 : This full-service drone operator operates over 300 drones and UAVs for business purposes and provides image survey and processing for a wide range of industries, including agriculture.
  • Wilbur-Ellis : This is $3 billion farm equipment supplier. It is working to bring satellite and drone imagery to AgVerdict, its software platform for agronomists.
  • Trimble Navigation : This Sunnyvale, CA, outfit offers many applications for precision agriculture, from water management to yield monitoring.
  • PrecisionHawk : This startup from Raleigh, NC, is a leader in the industry, and they manufacture the Lancaster fixed wing drone and supply DJI with ag-specific add-ons. They also help interpret and correlate data collected from satellites and drones by creating an algorithm marketplace.
  • Leading Edge Technologies : They are based Based in Winnebago, Minnesota. They convert drone data into farm intelligence for applications such as grain management and other precision agriculture solutions.
  • Digital Harvest  (formerly BOSH Precision Agriculture): This company specializes in collecting images, processing data and producing useful agricultural informatics.
  • AgWorx : Based in Raleigh, NC, AgWorx is a specialist in precision agriculture that handles everything from harvest timing to software applications for data collection on the ground and in the air.
  • AeroHarvest : This company serves vineyards with leak detection and optimizing irrigation schedules.
  • Vine Rangers (CA) : A service provider from Northern CA that specializes in servicing wine growers.
  • Empire Unmanned (ID) : Empire was the first agricultural drone service to receive a 333 exemption in the US, and Robert Blair is one of the principals. He is one of the most knowledgeable speakers on using drones for precision agriculture.

 

What Is Precision Agriculture (PA)?

Precision agriculture (PA) or satellite farming or site specific crop management (SSCM) is an approach to farm management that uses information technology to ensure that the soil and crops receive exactly what they need for optimum productivity and health.

The goal of PA is to more efficiently apply a farm’s limited resources to gain maximum yield, and also ensure profitability, sustainability and protection of the environment. Minimize variability of crop health within and across fields is a primary method for doing that. Read this amazing overview published by The Economist  to learn more about precision agriculture.

Precision agriculture relies upon IT services, software, and specialized equipment, and the approach includes accessing real-time data about the conditions of the crops, soil and ambient air, along with other relevant information such as equipment availability, labor costs, and hyper-local weather predictions.

Precision agriculture requires a LOT of data to work due to its nature. Here are the three main types of data:

  • Management data: crop yield and other data that farm operators provide.
  • Equipment performance: real time feedback and logs provided by sensor-equipped unmanned and manned equipment such as combines, tractors, spreaders, and seeders.
  • Geo-tagged images: visible and multi-spectral aerial images taken of fields.

According to Technavio , the use of precision agriculture technologies is growing very fast, globally.

 

Where Do Drones Fit in Precision Agriculture (PA)?

Drones are a new, high-precision way to get geo-tagged images from the air.

Drones are cheaper for surveying fields of less than 50 hectares in size than satellite imaging, manned scouting, and manned aircraft surveillance.

Compared with other aerial survey methods, drones generate more frequent and more precise data about the condition of crops, and this data is used in many ways to improve the performance of a farm’s operation.

Some say that the new FAA rules will restrict the usefulness of drones for agriculture. The reason for this claim is that under the new Part 107 rules, all measurement and observation must be taken by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator, which becomes a real problem for farms and fields that are larger than VLOS.

However, it is important to note that the vast majority of farms don’t have this issue.

According to this report there are about 2.1 million farms in the US, and the average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 %. This means that 1.85 million farms can benefit immediately from agricultural drones.

Today, drones are used to collect a variety of image-based data about the condition of livestock, fields, and crops – including:

  • 3D / volumetric data (hills, piles, patches, and holes)
  • Relative biomass assessment
  • Weeds presence
  • Disease presence
  • Nutrients presence
  • Health of plants
  • Plant count
  • Height of plants

For livestock operations, drones can be used to monitor the movement, status, and location of animals. Drones can do this job with more frequency and at a lower cost than other means.

Drone data is used to do farming operations more efficiently and effectively, including:

  • Classification of trees
  • Phenology
  • Leaf Area Indexing
  • Senescence Analysis
  • Drought Estimates
  • Plant Stress Monitoring
  • Yield Monitoring
  • Nitrogen Recommendation
  • Field Scouting/Surveying (before planting)
  • Crop Health Monitoring – largest ROI, by far
  • Crop Scouting – drones replace men

To take fast action, orthomosaic images generated by drones can be fed into an agricultural program like Sirrus®”, Stratus®, FarmRite®, SST Summit®, SMS by Ag Leader or other software tools to create prescription maps.

Prescription maps inform the farm operator what and where specific actions are needed, for example decreasing or increasing nitrogen spread on trouble spots, and they can be transferred directly into a precision applicator (sprayer) like a Case IH® or John Deere®.

Here’s an amazing 7-minute video segment produced by Iowa Public TV. This video explains why drones are being incorporated into crop management by more and more farmers.

video: https://youtu.be/ikU39yitmYk

 

Drones and Agronomy Management Systems

Today many precision farmers use agronomy management systems to collect and integrate all of the data flowing to/from their sensor-equipped drones, combines, tractors, and other farm equipment. They do that because of the amount of data required.

AgOS by AgWorks  and MyAgCentral  are leading agronomy management platforms.

Drones interact with agronomy management systems by feeding them with detailed, rich and timely geo-tagged images, and farmers can react more quickly and more precisely using this data than they can using other aerial imaging methods.

 

Advantages of Drones over Other Aerial Imaging Systems

Approximately 80% of the global drone industry revenues are in some way related to agriculture.

We all know that farmers are some of the most risk-averse people on Earth. So why would they adopt such a new technology?

Maybe it’s because agriculture drones offer many advantages over other crop monitoring methods including manned aircraft, manned scouting and satellite imaging, and these advantages include:

  • More Frequent Index Reporting: drones offer you a cost-effective way to monitor crops more often for key indices like NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) , CWSI (crop water stress index), and CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index).
  • 3D/Volumetric Data: You can calculate the volume of piles, patches, hills and holes using drone images. You can compare these images to Infrared images to identify contour issues such as north slope shade problems, or to detect density problems like hot spots in a crowded beet field.
  • Total-Field Scouting: now every field can be scouted 100% using drones, instead of riding an ATV around the perimeter to scout perhaps 5% of a field.
  • Earlier Detection of Issues: weeds, pests and other abnormalities are detected earlier because drones survey more frequently.
  • Greater Precision: drone cameras take centimeter-level images. They reveal much more detail about condition of crops.
  • Cheaper Imaging: drones are considerably less expensive for fields less than 50 hectares in size than manned aircraft surveillance or satellites.

In day-to-day operations, these advantages help farmers catch issues much faster and react more quickly. This can save thousands of dollars in crop losses per field.

The data generated by drones help farmers get a more accurate and detailed picture of how their crops are reacting to their management strategies. This can lead to more effective use of limited resources.

After all, every extra bit of knowledge helps, because a typical family farmer only gets 40 chances (seasons) to get things right.

 

How Flying Cameras Measure the Health of Crops

To spot issues with a crop’s health, most agriculture drones depend on multi-spectral imaging. Specifically, they look at changes over time in near-infrared (NIR) light and visible light (VIS) reflected by crops, and these images are taken over time by satellites, manned aircraft or drones.

Plants reflect different amounts of visible green and NIR light, depending on how healthy they are, so it’s possible to detect plant health from these images. We can spot potential health problems by measuring the changes in visible and NIR light reflected from a crop.

This image explains the idea:

To monitor changes in plant health over time, drone images are processed to calculate a tracking index called NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index). NDVI is a measure in the difference between light intensity reflected by the field in two different frequencies:

NDVI = (NIR-VIS)/(NIR+VIS)

NDVI is the ratio of NIR (near infrared) reflectivity minus VIS (visible red reflectivity), divided by NIR plus VIS.

When you compare a normal camera image of a winter wheat field to a NDVI-processed image of the same field, here is what you see:

You can see how the NDVI-enhanced image (right) does an amazing job separating the healthy wheat stalks (green) from the dry earth (black/brown) and dying edges (red).

There is a debate over whether NDVI is the right index or whether the simple difference between light spectrums (NIR – VIS) is more useful, and Agribotix put together an amazing writeup on this debate  and the misconceptions re. what NIR spotting can and cannot do.

NDVI is definitely the most popular index calculated using drone data. However, there are many others, and depending on your situation, some may be more or less important to your farm. Here are some of the more popular indices:

CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index) : Requires visible and near infrared cameras, and uses three wavebands along the red edge of the visible spectrum to detect canopy nitrogen levels.

CWSI (crop water stress index): Requires a thermal imaging sensor and the use of a nearby weather station, and measures temperature differentials to detect/predict water stress in plants.

Here’s a list of the latest research if you want to dive deep into this emerging science of agriculture image processing.

 

Surveying Crops Using a Drone: The Process

Whether you survey your fields using a drone or a fixed-wing, the process of collecting useful data using a drone consists of 4 basic steps:

  1. Plan Your Flight

Many of the latest agriculture drones come with flight planning software (some even plan the camera shots for you, automatically). The software lets you to draw a box around the field you want to survey (on a Google Earth map or similar), and a flight plan will be created for you automatically.

After that, you upload the flight path into your drone and you are ready to fly.

You may need to manually code or set each turn point if you are using an older ground control station or a home-built platform.

  1. Fly and Shoot

Your flight plan is loaded and your drone is armed. Now it’s time to start flying – and capturing images.

This part is simple with a fully-integrated system like the PrecisionHawk Lancaster.

Basically, you just send the drone on its way and, as the drone executes its flight path, the system will automatically take images using the onboard camera and sensors. To trigger each shot, the drone will use GPS location.

The drone lands automatically after finishing its run. Simple!

One person will need to take the shots manually while another pilot or a GPS autopilot flies the drone if you don’t use a completely integrated drone package.

Please bear these points in mind if you are manually capturing your images:

  • to ensure you get the image overlap and the coverage needed, shoot images based on GPS location, not time
  • your images need to overlap with each other by at least 70% to capture high resolution data correctly for agricultural purposes
  1. Process Images

Translating the hundreds of high-res images you just shot into information you can actually use is the most challenging part of the agriculture drone surveying process. But it’s not that difficult to do (or learn), so don’t worry.

To identify changes in crop health over time or to spot anomalies, most farm drone operators need to process hundreds of visual, thermal and multi-spectral images per flight.

And for you to get useful information from the flight, all these images need to be stitched together, converted into orthomosaic 2D images, processed and analyzed.

That’s a lot of data processing, but your home PC probably isn’t up to it.

This is where image processing software and services for agriculture come in.

Popular Image Processing Software for Agriculture

To turn aerial images into useful data, most agriculture drone operators use the following tools, and all of them use cloud-based processing to take the load off of you:

  • Pix4D : This is a popular and expensive image processing platform that can calculate NDVIs, DVIs, SAVIs and custom indices as needed. It also converts a series of aerial images into 2D orthomosaics, 3D mesh models, and 3D point clouds. Upload your images to use Pix4D, let them process, and then receive your reports and visuals typically within minutes to a couple of hours. Pricing is $8,700 to own or $350 per month to rent.
  • AgEagle’s RAPID
  • PrecisionMapper by PrecisionHawk (now called Data Mapper): This is a cloud-based application that works with some, but not all, UAS platforms. It gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data.
  • senseFly’s Postflight Terra 3D : This is senseFly’s software for converting aerial imagery into 2D orthomosaics, 3D models and differential indices. It is based on Pix4D, and provided free with all eBee drones.
  • Correlator3D™  by SimActive: Advanced photogrammetric processing client software that performs aerial triangulation (AT) and produces dense digital surface models (DSM), digital terrain models (DTM), vectorized 3D models, orthomosaics, and point clouds. It is for use on top-of-the-line PCs, and several aerial survey firms use them, for example AeroVironment.
  • DataMapper by PrecisionHawk: This is a 100% cloud-based platform. It supports image capture, differential processing and algorithmic analysis for many industries. Thanks to their unique Algorithm Marketplace, you can pick and apply specific algorithms to extract useful data such as DVI, NDVI, scouting reports, plant counts, and much more.
  • Trimble : Trimble’s Photogrammetry Moduleoffice software allows you to create detailed orthophotos, 3D models, volume calculations, point clouds, and digital elevation models. This software is designed for professional land surveyors, and also Trimble’s general-purpose Inpho UASMaster Module can be used for advanced photogrammetric processing.

Some image processing platforms are general purpose tools that anyone can use, and others are proprietary to the flying hardware you’re using. It is important to note that general-purpose packages, such as Pix4D, tend to have a bit of a learning curve.

Image Processing Services for Agriculture

You can upload your data to a data processing service that will generate the reports for you if you don’t want to operate the software yourself.

  1. Review & Take Action

You have downloaded your reports and enhanced images. Now it’s time to see what’s up with your crops.

 You’ll probably notice some problems your scouting crew couldn’t notice from the ground:

Or, maybe you’ll see new trouble spots in your corn fields. They need more nitrogen:

Or, perhaps you’ll notice an issue with water retention after the latest storm:

Whatever you find, after you’ve reviewed the health of your crops you can improve your overall view of the farm’s health and operational status by inputting the data into one of several farm management systems like MyAgCentral .

 

How Much Does It Cost To Survey a Farm?

One of the first precision agricultural drone imaging service providers to enter the Canadian market was Agris Co-op Ltd. in Chatham, Ontario.

The firm shoots high-res NDVI images of corn fields in Ontario using fixed-wing eBee and Swinglet drones for a price of about $5 an acre. A single flyover covers 100 acres in 15 minutes. It captures around 300 images for a price of $500.

This compares to a cost of about $15-20 per acre for satellite or manned aircraft photography (or 100 acres for $1,500-$2,000).  Both these older methods yield less resolution, can be hampered by cloud cover, and take more time to process the images.

Agris can cover more than 1,000 acres on a single day using a single drone, and images are post-processed in about 2 days.

Check out the nifty Drone Service Cost Calculator on Measure.aero’s website for another custom full-service cost estimate.

 

Are Agricultural Drones the Future of Livestock Tracking?

Today ranchers and farmers all over the world have large herds of animals wandering free in huge expanses of land. Increasingly smart drones offer an efficient way of keeping track of or finding lost animals. These drones can work both individually and as part of a coordinated team.

Using agricultural drones to manage their livestock is a new reality for ranchers.

Rogue beasts won’t be able to hide for long, with many drones fitted with thermal imaging and able to cover huge distances in a short space of time.

Live tracking systems have been used in conservation projects to monitor wildlife. However, it can also be applied to livestock tracking. It doesn’t matter whether you’re monitoring a Great White shark underwater or keeping tabs on a herd of cattle, a simple microchip can save effort and time for ranchers and farmers around the world.

 

Options and Upgrades

If you don’t like what you’re currently using, you can upgrade or replace some of your system’s components. These are the components that can be upgraded:

  • Props
  • Sensors
  • RC Controller (Transmitter)
  • Ground Control Station

You should avoid changing image processing tools and services that have been designed with your hardware in mind, and that is something to think about when choosing your first agricultural drone.

 

Drone Insurance

It is highly recommended to insure yourself against property damage, liability and lawsuits for any commercial activity.

To prove it’s worth getting insured, all you need to do is search “drone lawsuit”.

Scott Smith of SkySmith shared this example at Interdrone 2015, of what it costs to unsure a $20,000 drone:

 

Common Problems and Concerns

Flying an agricultural drone involves many of the same problems and concerns facing consumer and other commercial drone operators, but there are a few gotchas unique to agriculture, especially when it comes to data and the EPA.

Data Ownership

The image data generated by agriculture drones can be really useful for many people other than farmers, for example land management officials, land surveyors, drone operators, county officials, and the EPA. If they have access to the geotagged images, they can get a tremendous amount of value from them.

It is also important to note that some organizations can do damage to a farm if they have access to the geotagged images.

That’s the reason why, ownership of data is a critical legal issue that needs to be dealt via contract, whenever you:

  • commingle or share your images with a third party
  • process your images through a third party
  • employ someone to do an aerial survey of your farm

By default, the farmer should always retain full ownership of all data generated by drones flying over his/her property, and then, via contract, these rights can be granted to third parties on a need to know, exception basis.

Bottom line: You never want your data to be owned by anyone other than you.

Connectivity and Bandwidth

Millions of acres of farmland in the US have little to no online connectivity or cell coverage, and if this includes some of your fields, then you need the ability to store captured images and data locally and then upload them later on. Captured images and data can be stored in the drone or on a nearby ground station.

There are several systems that operate under the assumption you may not have connectivity at all times, for example AgOS by Agriworks.

You shouldn’t choose a drone that requires a live connection to the internet to capture data. That drone just isn’t a good choice for agriculture.

Privacy Laws

Today, there’s a lot of noise in the media about camera drones capturing photographs of people without their knowledge, and shotguns have been used to settle the score.

This could also happen on a farm, but there are minimum chances for that.

Nevertheless, your neighbor’s fields and home are their property, so you can violate local or state privacy laws if you take unauthorized photos of them. And when it comes to drones, state legislatures are on fire.

Nineteen US states (Utah, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, North Dakota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Mississippi, Michigan, Maryland, Maine, Louisiana, Illinois, Hawaii, Florida, Arkansas, Virginia and West Virginia) have passed legislation, and 6 other states have adopted resolutions.

Make sure you check with a local lawyer to get the latest rules in your region, because in 2015 alone, 45 states have considered 156 bills related to drones.

Interference with Other Aircraft

It is important to file a flight plan with your local airport/FAA office before every drone flight, because crop spraying and other manned aircraft may share the same airspace as an agriculture drone.

You should also make sure your drone operators understand this.

EPA Regulations

The EPA has the right by law to access any and all data generated by drones flying over your property, and there’s nothing you can do about this. That’s the reason why it is very important to pay attention to storage policies and data retention.

FAA Regulation and Operator Certification

According to the FAA, flying drones for agriculture is always a commercial operation.

By law, before your drone operator can operate a drone over your land, they must have FAA operator training and have their remote pilot certificate.

You should not hire them nor let them operate a drone over your property if they are not properly certified to fly an unmanned aircraft – even if no money changes hands.

 

Tips for Beginners

It is very important figure out what your main priorities are. Are you interested in aerial surveillance and mapping, or perhaps the more efficient use of resources is your primary concern? Do you need a thermal or a near-infrared sensor?

Getting used to the controls is definitely the first and most important thing to do, and this is especially important for larger commercial drones that will be flown over big industrial farms. If you plan to use a commercial drone for farming or start a drone-based business and offer such services, enrolling in a course to learn the basics may also be a good idea.

You can experiment with the camera and the sensors when you master the basic controls. Imaging is one of the largest agricultural drone essentials, and the quality of the footage and maps created has to be superior in order to deliver sufficient volumes of information.

You may want to keep the following additional tips in mind if you want to make the best use of an agricultural drone:

  • Determine what the best time of the day is in terms of data collection. Make a schedule and stick to it.
  • Rather than attempting to control the quadcopter, learn to fly the camera and observe the world through it.
  • It’s all about effective imaging, so you don’t need an expensive near-infrared sensor to get results. Even a basic camera will be capable of producing the NDVI (normalized differential vegetation index).
  • Every crop is different, and the metrics to use are dependent on the crop variety.

 

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Summary

Japan has been using unmanned aerial drones in rice farming for over a decade.

But agriculture drones are very new in the US & Canada.

In fact, the first FAA exemption for a precision agriculture drone operator was only awarded in January of 2015, and according to that operator, Empire Unmanned, drones are used by only 5-10% of farms in their precision agriculture operation.

 

 

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