Precision agriculture drones. Buyer beware!

December 28, 2016



Using drones to capture real estate is proving to be a very cost effective marketing tool. The drone market is expected to explode. In 2014 the market was around 552 million (Grand View). In the next five years the drone market is expected to double and be hitting well over 100 billion a year. Even with this growth real estate video will be among the smallest markets.


The three greatest markets will be Agriculture, Energy, and Government. The prime sector to grow is Government. This industry includes topical, federal, state, law enforcement, and the fastest growing military. The succeeding in line is agriculture. With precision farming already being practiced or being offered as a trial drones can be added easily to the decision makers toolkit. However, this market may have the greatest challenges adopting drone technology do to bad marketing of drone products. The elemental one right now is the use of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI).


Agriculture and Bogus NDVI services

NDVI is a important tool but not the only one to use for discovering leaf indices, moisture content, or fertilizer prescriptions. There are many variables that go into drone use for remotely sensing crop statistics. You must have a GIS and remote sensing specialist on your team somewhere to help with the real data acquisition needs. Some software companies promise that all you have to do is fly your field with your drone and NDVI sensor and they can do the rest. The fact is every field has various soil types and these soil types produce a different wavelength or spectral signature. Without going into the details of the electromagnetic spectrum and the various sensors used for remote sensing, I will explain plainly here. The spectral signature is a color on your crop or soil seen by the camera. That color changes depending on soil type due to the soil type, moisture, and even the time of day in which the sun (full, partial, or cloudy) reflects on the field. If these factors uniquely are not prudishly handled while gathering your drone imagery your results may look pretty, but significantly meaningless. The spectral signature (color) needs to be gathered uniformly by a couple of sensors combined with NDVI. The sunlight strength is changed by the haze or even clouds in the sky. This seems unmistakable but this needs to be also calibrated into every image while your flying your fields. To calibrate against this factor you will need an "irradiation sensor" or a radiometric sensor (Sensor). There is one sensor company right now that seems to offer this sensor along with the other wavelengths in one package. I have not tried their sensors out but with my remote sensing experience the equipment seems made to be a worth while purchase.


I have been using satellite imagery, aerial imagery, and GIS for over 11 years and the field of remote sensing is not one to be just dabbled in on the weekends. Neither should you have one of your office staff pick up flying a drone and try to do the books while also gathering NDVI imagery in his/her spare time. I know some software companies make this seem that easy to adopt drones but you will find out this method is costly and does not produce results. Just to prove my point let me suggest to you the best way to produce the best crop is to use NDVI to detect potential NPK deficiencies. You can add the NPK in the right areas even based on soil sampling and still be a costly production increase. Now let's say you just did soil moisture analysis and only adopted new water management prescriptions. With just water application alone you can typically see 16% to 30% crop production increase. That saves you water and costs less for a great gain. There are companies here in east Idaho that suggest higher and more fertilization rates. They are costly! Just take the time to get a good baseline first on soil moisture and adjust your irrigation prescriptions FIRST!. Once that is stabilized then go for the new fertilizer prescriptions. This insures that your water use is optimal and you won't be unnecessarily leaching off fertilizer.


This is the same with drone use in the field. Use the right sensors with the right understanding of how they work together and streamline a rewarding and sustainable precision agriculture system. Otherwise you could be trying to reinvent the wheel and get frustrated trying to figure out what the _eLL went wrong.


Here is the drone  that I recommend for farmers to get serious about precision ag. This aircraft will accommodate the sensors.






Grand View,



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