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Drones in the ag industry are being called upon for specialized and precise uses for which they are very well suited. Drones equipped with near infrared sensors can quickly and easily gather data on plant health and land management. Crop scouting, and water, fertilizer and pesticide management are made much easier and more time and cost effective with the data supplied by drones. Drones can even aid in the work of crop spraying and livestock monitoring. Payoffs can easily be seen in improved efficiency and productivity resulting in higher yields. Drone mapping abilities can also aid farmers in long term crop planning and land management.
Multispectral cameras are a farmer’s best friend. These sensors are able to detect up to five discrete spectral bands of light (near-infrared, red edge, red, green, blue) reflected from vegetation. Healthy vegetation reflects more of certain types of light than unhealthy vegetation, and it is this data and the resulting maps that help farmers to identify nutrient deficiencies and even detect diseases before they’re visible to the naked eye. Other ways that farmers can make use of NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) data gathered by drone include: phenotyping, crop health mapping, water stress analysis, leak scouting, fertilizer management, zone mapping, disease identification and more. The information provided by NDVI maps equip farmers to make informed decisions when it comes to levels and types of fertilizers and pesticides. Termed precision agriculture, this method of targeted application increases yield while reducing inputs, saving resources and lowering the environmental impact, increasing sustainability. Irrigation issues such as water-pooling or dry areas are easy to spot with thermal imaging, providing farmers with timely information to correct problems before they affect crop yields. Orthomosaic maps generated by drone-collected data are also key in land-use planning and management, allowing farmers to make long-range plans based on precise, accurate information. Plant health and crop management are not the only agricultural application suitable for drones. Drones also have an important role to play in livestock monitoring and management. Thermal cameras can easily spot each animal in a herd and provide information regarding animal health. Visual imagery, including zoom capabilities, can be used to spot injured or birthing animals, allowing farmers to get to the animals needing assistance more quickly. Drones are even known to assist in the process of herding livestock, whether in directing animals or to keep an eye on those that are straying or struggling to keep up with the herd.
One of the leading multispectral sensors on the market is the RedEdge-MX by Micasense. It is a professional multispectral sensor camera that is specifically designed for agricultural operations and can be attached to almost any drone. It boasts five built-in narrow spectral bands: red, green, blue, red, red edge, and near-infrared. It’s powerful, compact, and extremely lightweight at only 170 grams. Designed with field conditions in mind, the RedEdge-MX is housed in a metal case for extreme durability and is able to operate in Temperatures up to 60℃ (140℉). Another sensor specialized for ag applications is the MicaSense Altum. In contrast to the RedEdge, the Altum captures synchronized thermal, multispectral, and high-resolution visible imagery in a single flight, producing aligned outputs for advanced analytics. The integrated thermal, multispectral and visual sensor provides the ability to capture data on plant health, phenotype, and water stress in one flight. With 2.5x higher resolution than the RedEdge-M, the five high-resolution lenses of the Altum produce better data, with the ability to achieve highly accurate digital surface models, smoother stitching at lower flight altitudes, and more precise plant classification and counting. The Parrot Sequoia+ is a slightly different, but competitive option when it comes to sensors for ag use. The Parrot Sequoia+ claim to fame is that it is the smallest, lightest multispectral sensor currently available. It captures images across four defined, visible and non-visible spectral bands, plus RGB imagery, in one flight. When thermal imagery is the order of the day, a camera such as the Zenmuse XT2 is a great option that houses a dual thermal and visual sensor.
DJI produces several quadcopter packages optimized for agriculture applications. One such is the DJI Agras MG-1S Agricultural Drone. This drone is specialized for use solely as a crop spraying drone, with the ability to carry a large payload of spray and able to be operated more safely at a fraction of the cost compared to crop dusters, and more efficiently than manually spraying from a vehicle. Another more versatile ag quadcopter option is the Matrice 200 V2 or 210 V2, equipped with a multispectral sensor such as the MicaSense Altum or RedEdge. Other quadcopter options for ag applications include the DJI Matrice 100, a highly customizable platform for specialized uses, and the Parrot Bluegrass Fields Drone, an easy to use, entry level drone equipped with a Parrot Sequoia+ sensor. In contrast to the quadcopter solutions, if your field inspection and mapping need include covering large amounts of territory, with the need for an aircraft that can stay along longer than 20-25 minutes, a fixed-wing drone solution could be a better fit. Two options in this category are the senseFly eBee and the Parrot Disco-Pro Ag drone. The Disco-Pro Ag Drone is a specialized drone, designed specifically for agriculture applications. It is an all-in-one user-friendly package solution designed for farmers, taking them from field to data as effortlessly as possible. The senseFly eBee is a somewhat more versatile aircraft, being compatible with more than one sensor, with the most relevant sensor for ag applications being the Parrot Sequoia+.