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New UAV Tech Provides Quicker Field Images

From Cotton Grower Magazine – August/September 2015

 

Chad Colby’s business card announces him as an Agriculture Consultant, although if you spend any time around him, you’ll realize that short title doesn’t tell the whole story. He’s also carved out a name for himself as one of the nation’s leading experts – and advocates – for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Colby sees great potential for UAV usage in agriculture, and farmers from around the nation are catching on. Over 60 percent of the UAVs in the United States are used for agronomic purposes, he says, and a new advancement in the technology could make the site of UAVs hovering over fields even more common.

An aerial imagery software company called DroneDeploy has introduced technology that allows farmers to capture NDVI images of their fields in around 20 minutes – significantly faster than anything that has come before it. Colby uses it as an example of just how amazing agriculture technology can be.

“Guys, this is a big deal,” Colby said, speaking to a group of ag professionals at the AgInfo Conference in St. Louis in late July. “I test a lot of different things and there is some amazing technology coming out now, I mean stunning. And this is one of them – the ability to process imagery basically in the field in real time. Just a few button clicks, and you’re in business.”

Colby’s tone is noticeably more excited when discussing the possibilities. “This wasn’t even possible until around eight months or so ago,” he says.

For now, DroneDeploy is the only software company offering the practically real time image processing. The software company has teamed with AgEagle Aerial Systems, a manufacturer of UAVs designed for agricultural use, to bring their capabilities to American farmers.

The software is compatible with a model called the AgEagle Rapid, a long range fixed-wing UAV. The lightweight (6 lbs.) model is electric-powered and can be programmed to fly for up to 40 minutes at a time, covering over 400 acres.

As Colby demonstrated, the AgEagle Rapid can be programmed to fly on a pre-set pattern that makes multiple passes over a field – similar to the pattern a lawn mower might make to blanket a lawn. Along the way, a camera attached to the UAV captures aerial images in any number of formats, notably NDVI, which can provide a sound indicator of plant health.

While the UAV is making its passes over a given field, the grower has the ability to follow along from the ground level via a handheld tablet. In the past, the images captured using UAVs could take days before a grower had access to them. DroneDeploy and AgEagle have combined to provide the information within 20 minutes.

“We all know in agriculture, things can change overnight,” Colby said. “So it’s important to have that image so quickly.”

The technology allows growers to analyze and immediately address issues that may arise in a field. As Colby points out, there is no shortage of issues UAVs can assist farmers with – from in-field plant health diagnosis to identifying low-lying flood spots to assisting in livestock search and rescue efforts.

“When we talk about the practical approach for unmanned aerial vehicles, the applications for UAVs are going to make (the applications for tablets) seem tame in five years,” Colby said.

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