Today's drone technology promises a bumper crop of rich data for farmers, ecologists, ranchers and scientists
Advances in drone technology are literally soaring, and the agriculture and sustainability sectors are poised to benefit. Shedding their battlefield and pizza delivery reputations, drones are taking off as precise collectors of valuable information that can be used to squelch pest infestations or save a species.
More nimble and cheaper to operate than an airplane or helicopter, these scaled-down flying machines have the potential to create Ag. 2.0.
The U.S.-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that agricultural uses will eventually account for 80 per cent of the commercial market for drones.
"I see drones becoming the cell phone of agriculture," says Dr. Ernest Earon, president and co-founder of PrecisionHawk, a Canada-U.S. company whose Lancaster drone operates autonomously via artificial intelligence. "What we're doing is providing technology for farmers to make better decisions."
Dr. Earon, who graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies, specialized in using robotics for planetary exploration.
For the past decade, he's been developing intelligent vehicles with remote sensing capabilities. His Lancaster drone creates its own flight path based on surrounding conditions. The drone is launched by throwing it into the air. It lands after the requested data is collected. If conditions are bad, such as high winds or an overheating motor, it returns.
Farmers are particularly hungry for the information that Lancaster collects, Dr. Earon says. In a world of climate volatility, increasing input costs and a rapidly growing world population, drone data can potentially boost agriculture yields.
To find out how the corn crop is doing, for example, a farmer has to walk the land. That could be a lot of legwork.
According to Statistics Canada, the average size of a Canadian farm was 315 hectares in 2012. But in Saskatchewan, the average size was 675 hectares. Enter the drone.
In 40 minutes, 120 hectares can be surveyed by Lancaster.
The metre-long, 1.4-kilogram drone is used with various plug-and-play imaging sensors, including infrared and hyper-spectral, which depict more than 100 channels of light that can reveal problem areas invisible to the human eye.
The colour images show chlorophyll levels or plants that are getting too much moisture. Dr. Earon uses the example of potato blight, where evidence of the disease can be detected before the farmer spots it. Multi-spectral sensors indicate that plants which appear green may, in fact, be under stress.
That ability to discover problems before they become endemic could translate into reduced herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer use, Dr. Earon says.
Another advantage is that the drone does a big-picture survey and assesses the data in-air to ensure the information is complete. As soon as it lands, the farmer can get a quick view of the results, or the data can be uploaded to the cloud and processed by PrecisionHawk. Farmers choose their information, paying for data storage and processing.
Ian Glenn got his initiation by drone with the Canadian military. His company, ING Robotic Aviation, supplied drones in Afghanistan and for Canadian warships in the Persian Gulf.
But Glenn, an electrical and mechanical engineer who spent 22 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, also grew up on an Ottawa Valley farm.
Farming has radically changed in those 50 years since Glenn checked the family's cattle. Today's agriculture is "precision farming," that involves GPS-outfitted tractors, complex machinery and satellite imagery to detect problem areas.
"But our robotic aircraft can provide more timely, high-resolution information than satellite images," says Glenn, CEO and founder in 2002 of ING.
ING's prime agricultural drone is Responder. Looking like a small helicopter, Responder's battery allows it to fly at a 120-metre altitude for up to 25 minutes at a top speed of 72 kilometres an hour. Also outfitted with a multi-spectral camera, it can fly in temperatures as low as -30 C and up to 50 C.
Its data can be geo-referenced with a tractor's GPS system and Google Earth, so that the farmer knows exactly where to go to fix problem spots.
For livestock farmers, a drone's infrared sensors can find lost animals and even detect, due to temperature differences, which animals may be ill.
Responders can be sold or ING can do site visits.
But Responder has answered calls from beyond farm fields.
During the April flooding of Sherbrooke, Que., ING's robotic aircraft were used to map flooded areas and to determine who should be evacuated, Glenn says.
One sustainability project where ING led was saving the least
Bittern, a marsh-dwelling bird designated as "at risk" in Canada. Using a 36-megapixel camera mounted on the robotic bird, vegetative mapping images revealed where the wild bird could survive. Data also showed where irrigation patterns should be altered to improve the birds' habitat. "You can see where the hot spots are," Glenn says.
Other uses for drones include detecting dangerous algal blooms or effluent in water sources. And monitoring changes in delicate habitat like tidal zones, alpine areas, rain forests and even ice fields are prime drone missions.
Unlike the U.S., regulations in Canada allow commercial uses of drones under licensed conditions. And whatever they're called - drones, robotic aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles - the 21st-century flying machines deliver rich data for farmers and ranchers, ecologists and scientists.
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