If precision technology has driven the farming revolution of recent years, monitoring crops from the sky will drive the next.

With a drone or UAV you can capture highly accurate images of your fields, covering up to hundreds of hectares/acres in a single flight. Without the cost and hassle of manned services. At a far greater resolution than satellite imagery provides, even when there is cloud cover.

By using image processing software you can then transform these shots into one large ‘orthomosaic’ image. Apply algorithms like Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to this image and you create a reflectance map of your crop.

This map is the key to boosting yields, cutting costs, and driving your business forwards. It highlights exactly which areas of crop need closer examination – meaning less time spent scouting, and more time treating the plants that need it.

Drones in the crop scouting workflow

The guide below explains how drones fit within the precision crop scouting workflow. This info applies to most common varieties of crop (wheat, soya bean etc.), with this circle of activity typically being repeated at every key growth stage.

Precision Agriculture

Choose the best sensor (camera) for the job

  • RGB (Red/Green/Blue): visual inspection, elevation modeling, plant counting
  • NIR (near-infrared): soil property & moisture analysis, crop health/stress analysis, water management, erosion analysis, plant counting
  • RE (red-edge): crop health analysis, plant counting, water management
  • multiSPEC 4C (multispectral): both NIR & RE applications, except plant counting
  • thermoMAP (thermal infrared) – plant physiology analysis, irrigation scheduling, maturity evaluation, yield forecasting

Plan flight using ground station software

  • Highlight field/region on base map
  • Define landing area
  • Set required image resolution & photo overlap

Optional: define elevation

  • Capture Ground Control Points (GCPs)

Fly

  • Fully automated flight & landing
  • Monitor flight / live update of flight plan possible

Process (field/office)

  • Download data & build project
  • Perform initial processing
  • Generate custom vegetation indices (VI’s) such as NDVI, LAI etc.
  • Optional: generate orthomosaic

Analyse

  • Options:
    • Local analysis (data not shared)
      • Use supplied post-flight software
    • Export data to third-party software programs
      • See compatibility section below
    • Collaborative analysis
      • Share data with colleague/partner/cloud
    • Methods:
      • Vegetation indices (VI) such as NDVI, CWSI etc.
        • Detect structural, chlorophyll & water stresses
      • Elevation data/topography
        • Monitor erosion, design water drainage & irrigation systems
      • Manual inspection
        • Detect patterns, machine issues, weeds, plant stand, erosion etc.
      • Plant counting & statistics
      • Soil moisture & temperature
        • Evaluate drainage systems, disease & plant mortality

Inquire

  • Index variations
  • Patterns in canopy height, vigour, colour, density
  • Developing erosion channels
  • Damage observations
  • Plant statistical variations & comparisons to other data (e.g. planter data)
  • Patterns in dry soil vs. wet soil
  • Determine relative location of drainage tile & whether functioning/broken
  • Identify pests, disease, weeds
  • Collect tissue tests for fertility & disease issues
  • Collect soil samples for soil, fertility, pH & pest issues
  • Dig plants, inspect root structure for signs of compaction, depth, disease, pests
  • Measure erosion channel width & depth
  • Note machine issues & other visual defects
  • Count plants & determine population / spacing issues
  • Conduct exploratory excavation to determine drainage tile, depth, size & location
  • Any additional feedback
  • Gauge severity of impact
  • Gauge severity of damage
  • Identify deficiency in fertility, water or other
  • Verify survey data
  • Drainage tile, terrace & waterway condition/functionality

Compile

  • Match observations & assessments with survey data

Plan

  • Create planting, chemical treatment or fertiliser prescription
  • Land improvements – design & install drainage system, terraces, waterways, buffer strips, etc.
  • Move livestock
  • Harvest crop
  • Modify chemical treatment strategy & timing
  • Make necessary repairs or replace problematic machinery
  • Change farming practices
  • Land management – take ground in or out of production, rotate crops, etc.
  • Carry out plan – avert risk, economical
  • Don’t carry out plan – no risk, not economical

Drone usage by season

The following non-crop-specific overview shows the different ways in which a drone can be used to provide accurate, on demand data throughout the year.

Note: some farming operations may not follow the exact timeline below due to differences in crop type, region, tillage system, treatment or fertiliser strategy.

Drone (or UAV/UAS) technology suits a myriad of conservation and environmental protection applications — offering quick, easy and cost-effective aerial imagery, on demand.

From glacial feature modelling and erosion monitoring to animal counting and species identification, the list of projects that drones are being used for is long and continues to grow.

There are many reasons why professionals such as environmental engineers and scientific researchers are increasingly using drones, often in place of terrestrial surveying equipment or traditional aerial imaging services. The benefits these professionals often mention include:

Flexibility

A drone can be launched on demand—weather and regulation permitting—without needing to source and book manned aircraft services (if these exist in the region) or commission and wait for satellite imagery.

Timely

A UAV produces completely up-to-date imagery. This makes drones suited to time-sensitive projects and for monitoring locations at regular intervals (i.e. using the same flight plan each time).

Efficient

Unlike traditional surveying techniques, using a drone is fast and requires minimal staff, plus using an aerial approach overcomes common site access issues such as impenetrable vegetation, boulders, crevasses etc.

Cost-effective

Used regularly, the per-project cost of a professional drone system is typically lower than third-party alternatives such as manned imaging aircraft, with a drone system often providing a complete ROI in as little as a few months or a few large projects

Discrete

Small and light electric-powered drones, especially fixed-wing aircraft, make little noise and are often bird-shaped, meaning animals on the ground are rarely disturbed by these tools, if they notice them at all.

Rotary (helicopter) drone systems are best suited to monitoring and charting smaller areas, enabling operators to capture video imagery and respond to this feedback live, while fixed-wing UAVs allow users to map larger areas in a single autonomous flight.

A camera for every project

The camera, or payload, that a drone carries directly influences the imagery it can capture and therefore its potential usage. Here’s a quick guide to the most commonly-used aerial imaging sensors in this field:

RGB cameras (left image above)

Like the camera in your smartphone or SLR, RGB sensors acquire data in the visible spectrum (specifically Red, Green & Blue bands). The images they produce can be transformed into 2D orthomosaics (A.K.A. orthophotos) and 3D digital surface models. Such sensors have been used, for example to create terrain models of glacial features, monitor coastal erosion, perform volume measurements etc.

Near-infrared (NIR), red-edge (RED) & multispectral cameras (centre image above)

These cameras acquire data across bands in the visible and non-visible spectrums. This type of data enables users to compute vegetation indices in order to create reflectance maps for assessing plant health, estimating biomass and more.

Thermal cameras 

Temperature-measuring thermal cameras assign a temperature value to each pixel and have already proved highly useful in the field—being used to count treetop orangutan nests and seals, assess the spread of wildfires and more.

Example drone applications include:

Animal management & conservation

  • Animal/flock counting
  • Animal Disease monitoring
  • Camera trap image retrieval
  • Vessel monitoring (e.g. whaling ships)
  • Animal tracking (e.g. via radio tracker collars/triangulation)
  • Migration tracking
  • Perimeter assessment
  • Habitat management
  • Anti-poaching activities (identification, deterrence)
  • Nest surveys
  • Species identification

Plant conservation

  • Plant health/stress analysis
  • Soil property & moisture analysis
  • Biomass estimation
  • Growth/coverage monitoring
  • Plant/tree counting
  • Species identification

Forestry

  • Vegetation health analysis
  • Biomass estimation
  • Fire detection & tracking
  • Storm damage assessment
  • Planting / re-planting campaign planning
  • Deforestation / illegal logging / farming / incursion monitoring
  • Forest mapping

Change monitoring

  • Glacial dynamics
  • Coastal / soil erosion
  • Pre-and-post event comparison (storms, landslides etc.)
  • Forest degradation

 

Terrain modelling

  • Morphology
  • Glacial features
  • River banks
  • Cliff faces
  • Beaches
  • Volcano craters

Coastal management

  • Erosion monitoring
  • Storm damage assessment
  • Volume estimation
  • Beach replenishment planning

River & flood assessment

  • River mapping & modelling
  • River surveys
  • Water-flow simulation
  • Erosion monitoring
  • Flood damage assessment
  • Flood defence planning

Earthwork & rock face management

  • Control screen inspection
  • Crack / unstable area detection
  • Rock fall assessment
  • 3D modelling
  • Project planning

Regulation enforcement

  • Illegal activity detection & monitoring
  • Compliance monitoring (e.g. overfishing, illegal logging/farming expansion, illegal entry into protected areas etc.)

Expedition planning

  • Basemap creation
  • Route planning
  • Terrain modelling