Ag Drone School demonstrates how this rapidly-growing technology applies to agriculture.
Recently, I had the opportunity to learn how to fly. Drones, that is.
I attended a two-day session of LandView Drones’s Ag Drone School in late March, hosted at the LSCU Complex, a community centre in La Salle, Man., just south of Winnipeg. Even though we started indoors, there was lots of room for us beginners to learn how to fly a drone. The other four students were local producers, and only two members of the group were familiar with drones.
Markus Weber, president of LandView, runs the Ag Drone School with his business partner, Mat Matthews, the owner of BlackHawk Aeronautical Solutions Inc., and a professional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) pilot. The school began last summer, when Weber and Matthews ran one session as a test. The school’s popularity has grown since then, leading the pair to host 10 sessions in communities across Western Canada this year. Upon successful completion, students receive a certificate from BlackHawk Aeronautical Solutions and a radio transmission operator’s license from Industry Canada. They also receive a drone of their own as part of registration.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!
Our first day of Ag Drone School began with the basics. Matthews spent the majority of the day walking us through the different types of drones – known as UAVs in the U.S. and Unmanned Aerial Systems in Canada – and their many commercial uses.
Since they’re easy to fly and quick to set up, drones are being used for a variety of applications like real estate photography, cinematography, search and rescue missions, accident investigations and surveying. While the drone industry is still very much in its infancy, Matthews says the technology is moving “faster than I could ever imagine.”
We were introduced to the two main types of drones: fixed wing and multirotor. Commercial grade fixed-wings can cost as much as $20,000, and have a battery life that lasts as long as 45 minutes, allowing for coverage of approximately 350 acres. The shape of the wings on these models provides lift and their longer battery life allows them to cover more acreage. However, because they fly just like planes, takeoff and landing can be a challenge.
Commercial grade multirotors can cost as much as $10,000, depending on what kind of sensor they use, and can cover 80 acres with a 17-minute battery life.
There are also drones that are a hybrid of fixed wing and multirotor emerging onto the market, giving producers the efficiency of the fixed wing, combined with the safety of the multirotor’s vertical landings. The multirotor is the type we’d end up flying, but first we had to get a few crashes under our belts at a much lower price point.
For this, we were each given our very own Dromida KODO HD drone to practice with at home, which we all received as part of signing up for the school. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these drones are the entry-level multirotors that most people are familiar with – great for beginners to learn the basics of the controls.
(Drone technology) is moving faster than I could ever imagine.
Learning the Basics
At the end of the first day, we all took our KODO drones home for practice. When we returned the following morning for the second and final day, we were finally able to start really flying and were given the opportunity to try out some bigger models. We made our way to the gym across the hall from the classroom to give ourselves more space.
We started out with simple flying drills – hovering the drone a few feet off the ground, rotating it, turning it left and right and flying backwards and forwards a few feet before coming in for a gentle landing – something I found a bit difficult when I nearly crashed Weber’s own Inspire 1 into the gym floor. (Note to self: some drones need to engage landing gear before touching the ground!)
After practicing with the larger drones, Weber and Matthews let us fly our KODO drones around the gym for a bit. We quickly learned to not stand too close to one another when flying our KODO drones. Their lightweight design coupled with our beginner-level piloting skills meant we’d all have to be ready to quickly duck and dodge if one suddenly began a sharp descent toward our heads.
Matthews and Weber joined us with their own lightweight drones that were roughly the size of a matchbox. In one smooth motion, Matthews would toss his drone up in the air like a handful of confetti and zip it around the gym, performing loop de loops along the way.
After an hour of practice indoors, we moved outside where Matthews and Weber set up the larger drones on the edge of a large field, far from any other buildings or people, for a demonstration of the drones’ mapping abilities.
Using the Map Pilot app, we created a flight path for the drone before we started flying. Once the flight path is set up, the process is nearly 100 per cent automated: all you have to do is get the drone up in the air and land it at the end, the drone does the rest. It was a bit strange to see the drone hovering a couple hundred feet in the air, moving up and down the field on its own.
The controllers are designed to hold a smartphone or tablet to run the apps that communicate with the sensors, like Map Pilot, and were easy to use after a bit of practice.
While the drones were flying around the field, we didn’t have to touch the controls. All we had to do was monitor what the camera on the drone was showing us on the tablet or smartphone, making sure it wasn’t getting too close to any trees, hydro poles or birds. Since we had already set up the route, the drone was mapping the area automatically, compiling a series of pictures that would later be stitched together to create a map of the area.
Once the mapping was complete, all we had to do was manually land the drone. But before we did, Matthews and Weber helped us arrange the drones nearly 50 ft. above where we were standing. Using his drone’s camera, Matthews snapped a class picture – my first drone selfie.
The mapping capability of drones is just one of their many agricultural applications. Drones can also be used for documenting things like land use and irrigation and wildlife trampling claims, but Weber says they’re mainly being used for crop scouting and handling land-use disputes.
Retailers and producers can also use drones for support when it comes to variable rate prescriptions, especially when applying fertilizer within the crop year for top dressing. Weber says this is the biggest use of drones in agriculture right now.
It’s All in the Sensors
The drones’ sensors are used to map fields and other property. There are three different sensors that are commonly used by agronomists and producers. The “RGB” – which is just a stock camera – is the most affordable of the three, and tends to be what producers choose when buying their first drone.
“But where producers really get a lot of value with regards to crop imaging is by including near-infrared light,” says Weber. Near-infrared light is a spectrum of light which plants reflect very differently depending on whether they’re healthy or not.
This second sensor option involves changing the filtration of an RGB camera and allow near-infrared light in. This allows them to see the crop through the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI).
The NDVI shows the producer how healthy their crops are by the colours displayed on the maps. Dark green indicates that the crop is the most productive and healthiest; dark red indicates there’s zero growth or the crop is extremely unhealthy.
“You wouldn’t be able to discern what the problem is based off the colour alone, only that there’s a problem that requires investigation,” says Weber. “If there’s not enough moisture or too much moisture, both of those would tend to give you a red colouration.”
The third option, a multi-spectral sensor, records a different wavelength of light with each of four or more separate sensors and then recombines them into a complete image afterwards.
“That gives the producer much better data in terms of the spectrum of light that’s being collected and what you can do with it,” says Weber. “It is possible, for example, when using red-edge wavelengths, to see crop stress even earlier than an NDVI image would, or to estimate yield or canopy coverage. So, multi-spectral sensors really do give the best value and the best data for crop imaging.”
For producers that are already running on-farm trials, they’ll receive much more information when using an NDVI sensor or multi-spectral sensor.
“Until now, they could only get data at the end of the season,” explains Weber. “They don’t typically get any information about how it’s doing within the season, other than maybe site visits, but there’s no data associated with that. With drones, they have a way to monitor throughout the season what effects the different treatments are having.”
I think (drones are) the future and it would just be so easy (to use in agriculture).
For 18-year-old Noah Schlichting, LandView’s Ag Drone School was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this growing field of technology and its many uses in agriculture. But Schlichting is no stranger to drones – he recently purchased a DJI Mavic Pro drone in January and has since been using it for photography and flying for fun.
He helps run his family’s farm southwest of Winnipeg, and while he currently calls himself a “recreational (drone) user” he says he could see himself using them on the farm in the future.
“If one day I do get into farming and I’m planting crops of my own, I think I would use it. I think that’s the future and it would just be so easy,” he says.
The school was very good. It answered a lot of questions that I didn’t even know I had.
“I didn’t know how many uses there could be (for drones) in agriculture, and how easy it is. I thought you’d need some crazy software or computer, but all you need is your phone, a standard laptop and a drone – and you’re good to go, basically.”
“I thought the school was really informative,” he adds. “I thought the guys did a great job teaching and keeping it interesting. It was put together well.”
Bob Elliot, a producer from Stonewall, Man., says he found flying the drones to be “pretty easy,” adding that you could get the hang of it quickly.
“Once you’ve set up your map and put it on autopilot, the majority of the time you’re going to be using the app for a planned route,” he says.
Elliot signed up for the class to satisfy his curiosity. He says they use a lot of duplicated technology in their operation, which led to him seeking out other methods, like drones. He says he will be buying a drone for their operation, but hasn’t decided on a particular model just yet.
“We’ve got multiple combines with multiple yield monitors. They’re tracking yield and variations in the field with the same technology, but with multiple pieces of the same equipment. So, I thought, maybe, instead of duplicating this technology on the combines, maybe one drone could outweigh what (all that equipment does).
“The school was very good. It answered a lot of questions that I didn’t even know I had.”
For Weber, answering these questions is really what the class is about, rather than just learning to fly. The ultimate goal of the Ag Drone School is for students to understand the value of the image they can take, and how helpful drones can be as decision-making tools in their operations.
“I want them to understand what the potential is for using imagery on farms. How they could potentially see more than the human eye can see, both by getting airborne, and also by using different spectral data that the human eye simply can’t perceive,” he says.
“Whether they’re on the ground or in an airplane, you’re not going to be able to see those things. It’s hard for people to understand that without getting their hands on it, without actually seeing it live.”