AgWatch


Roboflight Systems Provides View Of World From Skies

MEGAN SALLEY

JOHNSTON, IOWA
   On the ground below, a trained operator steadily maneuvers an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), allowing a specially-formatted infrared camera to capture images below. While UAS technology may seem a bit like science fiction, this scenario is rapidly becoming a welcome alternative to the antiquated method of walking the fields.
   According to Dr. Kevin Price, Executive Vice President of Applied Research and Technology Development at Roboflight Systems, the ability to see the world from the vantage point of a UAS is exciting. The real value, however, becomes apparent in the meaningful data extracted from those images. To those experienced in remote-sensing, the “pretty pictures” are meaningless without actionable intelligence.
   As Price explains, plants in distress can communicate their condition through spectral characteristics, signals that are unobservable to the human eye. It isn’t until later into the growing season that a crop, which appears healthy at first glance, may yield far less than expected. By then, it may be too late to replant or apply useful treatments.
   Although still emerging in precision agriculture, these diagnostic technologies have significant potential to boost profits. Price uses an example from the medical field. He says an agronomist, much like a doctor receiving an X-ray from a radiologist, can look at processed images and develop treatment plans.
   Back in the real world, this early detection could allow a producer to adjust their fertilizer prescription in nitrogen-deficient areas. After the producer receives their exportable data map as a product, they can then upload it into their farm management system and utilize the variable rate application technology already available in the marketplace.
   Additionally, in cases of infestation, the targeted application of herbicides or insecticides in zoned areas not only halts the spread of diseased areas, but it also provides both cost and time savings to the producer. The loss of crops and other environmental impacts due to over application are also greatly reduced.
   Price cited a recent project involving a Canadian Thistle infestation on a 120-acre corn pivot. RoboFlight collected aerial imagery for the producer for research purposes, hoping to observe where the thistle had spread. The farmer later proceeded to treat the entire field. Upon viewing the processed aerial imagery, the research team at RoboFlight was able to classify the corn and Canadian Thistle. After confirming the classification with ground-level testing, it became evident less than one acre of his corn field had actually been affected by this noxious weed.
   While the herbicide cost-savings alone would have been significant, the producer also would have avoided crop loss that resulted from high winds. According to Price, who conversed with the farmer’s crop consultant, approximately 45 percent of the corn crop was lost to “green snap,” which the agronomist attributed to a weakening of the corn stalk, a side effect of the herbicide.
   “If the farmer had only applied the herbicide to affected areas, his costs would have been reduced and his yields would have been much greater,” said Price. “As it turns out, he lost over $40,000 in profits. If this kind of intelligence was used regularly, a farmer could quickly see the benefit to such products.”
   He is quick to note that other valuable resources beyond fertilizers and herbicides can be conserved with an aerial perspective, perhaps the most valuable of all resources: water. Irrigation systems are easily monitored from the air versus ground level inspections. After hearing Price’s enthusiasm, it’s clear that the further his team delves into research, the more new applications will continue to emerge.
   “Drones are going to revolutionize the way work is done in agriculture – they are going to be a disruptive technology such as the internet, smart phones, computers, etc. Precision agriculture will never be the same,” said Price. “I wouldn’t wait to get my hands on this technology. In ten years, every producer will be using it.” ∆
   MEGAN SALLEY: Usability and Communications Specialist, RoboFlight Systems, LLC
MidAmerica Farm Publications, Inc
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