Eye in the sky

Drones help scout fields, saving time and giving a different perspective.


By Vicky Boyd
Editor

Timothy Gertson

Timothy Gertson demonstrates flying a drone to scout rice fields.

Timothy Gertson readily admits that flying a drone is cool. But the producer of row crops near Lissie, Texas, is quick to point out that his unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV as a drone is sometimes called, saved him countless hours this season scouting levees as he watered rice fields.

“It would take me two to 2 ½ hours to scout everything that a drone might take a few minutes to scout,” he says. “A lot of times, I didn’t need to do anything but it identified places I might need to go. It saved a ton of time early in the season because some of our fields were new and I’d never watered them before.”

Gertson even used his drone to survey an organic corn field damaged by feral hogs to obtain a more accurate estimate of the seed needed to replant.

Scott Savage, who grew up flying model airplanes and even has a private pilot’s license, jumped at a chance to get a drone about two years ago.

“We got one just for fun,” says Savage, who is part of the family-owned Triangle Rice Farms in Bay City, Texas.

As a pilot, Savage used to fly his fields weekly, looking for problems from the airplane. That got him thinking about using his drone to scout rice fields.

“The drone was much easier and quicker and definitely more cost effective,” he says.

Gertson and Savage are not alone in their interest in drones for farm use, says Louis Wasson, a senior Extension associate with Mississippi State University in Starkville.

The recent publication of the Federal Aviation Administrations’ drone rule has propelled Unmanned Aerial Systems—as the entire packages of drones, cameras, sensors and software are known—and several software manufacturers are racing to put products on the market, he says.

In a matter of a few minutes, Timothy Gertson can attach a few cables from the controller to the tablet monitor and be ready to fly.

In a matter of a few minutes, Timothy Gertson can attach a few cables from the controller to the tablet monitor and be ready to fly.

Drone popularity takes off

Producers such as Gertson and Savage use drones simply to “point and see.” More advanced systems involve using drones to take images with special NDVI or RGB cameras that detect differences in light waves reflected by vegetation.

The industry isn’t at the point yet where those images can readily be processed into a format that tractors can use. But Wasson says several companies now have cloud-based image processing. After you’ve completed your flight, you submit the imagery over the Internet and within hours or overnight, you have a multitude of products derived from the imagery. By the 2017 growing season, he says there will likely be several companies offering infield image processing. No Internet — it’s all done on a laptop or iPad.

“The drone is the easy part. The flying is the easy part,” Wasson says. “Easily getting that data into information, we’re not quite there yet. Farmers don’t care about the pretty picture – they want information.”

Getting started

Gertson did his homework before he bought his drone in October 2015. His brother-in-law had bought a 3DR drone made by 3D Robotics about four to six months before. The unit, designed to work with a separate GoPRO video camera, took about 20 minutes to assemble each time it was flown.

Gertson says he ended up buying a unit from DJI for about $1,200 that included a built-in video camera. DJI has since come out with models costing as little as $500.

What also sold him on the DJI was its Light Bridge Technology, which allows users to stream 720 pixel video from 1.2 miles away. Image feeds from some other drones may cut out if they’re farther away than several hundred feet.

Although the built-in camera can shoot higher resolution video, transmitting it can be choppy because of the larger image size. Gertson opted for the lower-resolution 720p stream, which he says is fine for viewing in the field. At the same time, the drone saves a higher-resolution version to an internal SD card for later viewing.

Gertson also chose a package that included a hard carrying case where he can store his drone with the blades still attached. Many other cases require the propellers be removed before storage.

In addition, he bought two back-up batteries, which are each good for about 20 minutes of flying time when fully charged, as well as a few sets of replacement blades at about $10 per set.

The drone’s remote control box, which resembles a video gaming console with mini-joysticks, also needs to be connected to a smartphone — either an iPhone or Android — or a newer iPad with a Lightning connector. (The smart devices are not included in the drone’s purchase price and must be bought separately.)

This provides the screen that the pilot on the ground uses to view what the drone’s camera is imaging.

Initially, Gertson used an iPhone, but he eventually moved to an iPad Mini because of the larger viewing screen.

In a matter of a few minutes, he is able to pull the drone from the case, plug in a few cables, turn it on and be ready to fly.

When scouting levees, he can fly as low as 2 to 3 feet off the ground for close-up views and can send the UAV up to 1 ¼ miles away.

The drone’s software knows when it’s running low on battery power and will return automatically before it runs out.

Scouting that used to take hours by foot or on a four-wheeler can now be done in minutes using a drone.

Scouting that used to take hours by foot or on a four-wheeler can now be done in minutes using a drone.

Time-saving devices

Savage, who also flies a DJI drone, used it to scout levees during the 2016 season. In the past, he either rode a four-wheeler or walked to check water—tasks that could take hours or even days. The drone can check those same levees in a few minutes.

“Mainly it’s a time-saving device and a labor-saving device,” he says.
For the past four years, the farming operation has had to cut back significantly on rice production because of the drought and zero water deliveries. Water deliveries were restored in 2016, and Triangle Rice Farms increased acreage accordingly. That meant monitoring fields that hadn’t been in rice for the past few years.

“We did have some fields where levees blew out and if they stay dry for more than five or six days during flood, it’s very obvious from the air,” Savage says.

The family also has battled wild hogs, which make a mess rooting around levees looking for grubs and other insects.

“I used it a lot this year to scout for damage—it definitely saved a lot of time,” he says.

Next season, Savage says he hopes to use it even more. This winter, he also plans to look into some of the new drones and accompanying technology that have come on the market in the two years since he purchased his. Savage says he likes the vertical take-off of the four-propeller units, like he owns. But new hybrids on the market offer vertical take-off but also can reach speeds of up to 50 mph, flying much faster than quad-blade models.

If Savage likes what he sees, he says he may upgrade to a new model before the 2017 season.