Brandon Batten uses drone to zero in on crop problems and answers
When an image of a field causes a grower to ask more questions, that’s when they can improve.
“If you’re questioning what you’re doing, then you are looking for a better way and if you can measure it, you can make it better,” said Brandon Batten, Johnston County, N.C., tobacco farmer and drone operator.
One way farmers and ranchers are calibrating management decisions on the ground is from the air using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Batten, also a corn, soybean, rye, wheat, and cattle farmer, utilizes drones to conduct stand counts and develop fertility plans for his small grain crops.
“Last spring after we transplanted tobacco we got 13 inches of rain in a 10-day period. We had a lot of drowned tobacco, a lot of washed-out fields,” says Batten. “I was able to use the drone to do stand counts before I could even walk in the field and assess the damage.”
Brandon Batten flies his drone over his soybean crop in Johnston County, N.C.
Though flying drones still takes time, Batten credits the technology for allowing him to zero-in on any crop issues. “I can quickly see where the problem is and go there as opposed to walking the whole field and maybe finding the problem or maybe not,” says Batten. “So, it’s allowed me to dial in exactly where I need to be looking, figuring out what’s going on: is it a soil type issue, a drainage issue? Is it a carryover chemical issue? You can see so many patterns when you get up 400 feet above your fields that you really can’t see walking in them.”
The market size for drones in smart agriculture is predicted to increase from approximately 670 million U.S. dollars in 2015 to 2.9 billion U.S. dollars by 2021, according to a report on statistica.com. And while aerial imaging is not new to agriculture, the use of drones is allowing growers to access a closer look, even on an individual plant basis, in a short-amount of time.
“A drone is basically just a new platform (with obvious advantages) to collect the same sort of data that we’ve been collecting from airplanes and satellites for decades,” says Lori Duncan, Tennessee Extension specialist in biosystems engineering. “It does allow us to have much higher spatial resolution and we can fly more often which changes the game. The challenge lies in interpreting the data into a meaningful agronomic decision.”
Historically, satellite images have been used to give growers a birds-eye view of their crops, providing a resolution of 30 meters. UAVs allow growers to zoom in even closer. “With these drones, there’s not a limit on our spatial resolution, so when we fly I can get down to an inch in resolution,” says Duncan, who uses drones to conduct applied research. “It’s a lot of data but because we’ve come into this era of precision agriculture, it’s hard to make precise recommendations on a 30-meter pixel. And if we’re talking about making any site-specific applications — be it fertilizer, pesticide or whatever — it’s really hard to make any kind of educated guess on that 30-meter image, whereas if we’re down at the sub-inch level we can really see if it’s a weed or if it’s the cotton plant.”
UAVs can be used to view live images or they can be armed with sensors that allow them to detect and map areas of pressure in the field. “We can generate a map that will show where in the fields these regions of pressure are,” says Dr. Bobby Vick, solutions engineer at PrecisionHawk, Raleigh, N.C. “We don’t prescribe to the farmer how much product he or she should apply but we can help them target where those locations of stress are in their field — be it fertility, be it disease, or otherwise. Then they can use that information to create management zones.”
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