Structures & Equipment
Drone usage with Inside View: September 2015
By Gary Jones
‘It’s a bird…it’s a plane…’ no…it’s your crop UAV
By Gary Jones
Sept. 2015 – There has been much said recently of the use of “drones” in agriculture. More correctly called “UAVs” (unmanned aerial/air vehicles), these are the remote controlled aircraft type, not the natural bee sort, of course.
When considering the equipment and the additional hardware/software in its entirety, they are normally referred to as “UASs” (unmanned air systems). A number of companies such as Sensefly, PrecisionDrone or PrecisionHawk, to name but a few, provide drone services.
So, what use are they to horticulture? As you might expect, with something as fun as a remote control airplane or helicopter, people are finding all kinds of uses. The primary use so far seems to be aerial imaging of crops, providing a whole different aspect of crop management.
For example, visual (red-green-blue, RGB) imaging can provide instant views of the extent of pest/disease infections, and can help in evaluating action thresholds.
Other imaging techniques – such as near infra-red, “red edge” and thermal infra-red – can provide ways to assess water and nutritional status of crops, thereby helping with irrigation management.
In our industry they’re being used in quality control inspections during greenhouse construction. And the accessibility that UAVs can provide means that they have serious crop research applications.
Outside of the greenhouse structure, perhaps UAVs could be used to apply whitewash or similar products, but their relatively small size makes such tasks challenging. Researchers at Delft University of Technology are investigating so-called “pocket drones.” Palm-sized, or smaller than a coin in some cases, these may have applications inside a greenhouse for pest scouting, monitoring crop water status, or possibly even to do actual work on crops such as bell peppers. If successful, such pocket drones may have significant potential in targeted delivery of novel pest management techniques, even biological control agents. Researchers at Delft claim that pocket drones “are the cell phones of the next decade,” and that soon we’ll all have one in our, well, pocket.
Also in pest management, Tom Baumann of the University of the Fraser Valley is looking at UAVs to scare birds away from berry crops. This will be a welcome advance, if successful, promising to replace the noise-polluting bird canons that are the current industry standard (and a continual source of residential-agriculture conflict).
UASs bring a number of features and benefits to our industry:
- Being able to cover large areas of ground quickly and thoroughly.
- Versatility of sensors or equipment that can be installed.
- Being cost-effective both in terms of initial outlay and operating costs.
- Providing access to otherwise difficult to access locations (above crops, within crops).
- Drones can be programmed to cover pre-determined routes, or indeed to cover different routes each flight to avoid habit formation.
- Multiple UAVs can be programed to work together to cover even larger areas of crops or land.
- They are fun to work with (which could have a downside if you can’t put it down!).
At the moment, the biggest issue with UAVs is the legality of use. In Canada, regulations allow commercial uses of drones under licensed conditions.1 However, it’s currently illegal for companies to operate drones over the U.S., and to fly commercially, companies must get a specific exemption. Only a handful have obtained them so far.
With all new techniques, it’s fabulous to be able to collect lots of data. Aerial mapping and data collection is no exception. But the amount of data that can be collected can be quite staggering and depending on the application there may be a learning curve of what that data means or how it should be interpreted.
- 1 Grower Greenhouse Supplies newsletter Nov 2014.
Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and welcomes comments at Gary.Jones@kpu.ca.