Data gathering, ease-of-use goals for farm drone work

Managing Editor

DUNNSVILLE, Va. (June 28, 2016) — As a drone flew over a corn field on Brandon Farms on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, Bob Waring, his dad Bob Sr., and Ken Kroeger watched a computer monitor relaying live video of what the aircraft passed over.
Almost immediately. skips in field where corn plants should be jump out to the Warings who farm the land.
“Grackles,” said Bob Sr., noting the birds either peck alongside young corn plants to get at the seed or pull the whole seedling out of the ground, destroying the plant. “They hadn’t been a problem for years and this year they’re back.”
As the drone continues its flight, Bob Sr., surmises the fix could be planting half an inch deeper to get the seed out of reach from the grackles beak and have it rooted in the soil just a little more to resist the bird’s tug.
“I knew we had some but I didn’t realize the extent of it until I saw it on screen,” he said. “We just saw a benefit today of what we’re doing here.”
Though helpful to the grackle issue right away, Kroeger and Bob Waring aren’t expecting other crop issues to be solved by drones that quickly.
They said they’re still at the beginning of a long process, continually building on the data they’ve already compiled from the past two seasons and seeking more places and farms to gather data.
Bob said he got interested in using aerial imagery as a farming tool after a helicopter took aerial images of the farm for a program in the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“I got to thinking, you can really learn a lot from the air,” Bob said. “Most farmers know their fields but sometimes until you see it from above you don’t notice certain things or look at it the same way. It enhances it more I think.”
That led to the Warings commissioning their own customized unmanned aerial aircraft about three years ago which Kroeger did much of the work in building.
The research with drones is supported by Brandon Farms and through a NASA grant held by Kroeger’s employer Heron Systems.
Much of the first year was spent getting the equipment stable enough to use repeatedly in the field and mapped for programed flying.
Starting out mapping fields took most or all of a day but now with that foundation laid, Kroeger can do the periodic flights of several fields in half that time.
“Last season we started to pick up the pace with better equipment and imagery,” Bob said.
As they analyze the data imagery from the flights, the research pair with Waring coming from the farming side and Kroeger from the drone and engineering side are looking for consistent patterns of stress on the crop in the field to add reliability to the data and help form a model for making predictions and recommendations.
“What we’re getting here is a series of progressions with the idea that years from now we’ll be able to stop something that starts up early on,” Kroeger said.
Imagery gained from flying the same path over fields on Brandon Farms every other week goes toward their effort in creating and refining farmer-friendly programs that help make treatment decisions sooner in fields to reduce yield loss or improve lesser performing areas of fields.
Along with gathering as much data as they can, Kroeger is working on mobile application that will organize the imagery and field data in an understandable and usable way for growers. Kroeger is using a beta version now for the Brandon Farms fields and expects the release of the first public version free to growers by harvest time in the fall.
“In the long term, we’re not only working on a database of problems, we’re also developing something that makes it really really easy to fly,” Waring said.
Though the use of drones proposes to speed up diagnosis of crop issues, Waring said it doesn’t take the place of walking fields and using traditional crop scouting.
Kroeger said with the drone’s ability to provide far more information than in the past, it could require more crop scouting to maximize its benefit.
“It’s not a holy grail situation,” Bob said. “You’ve got to go out in the field and do sampling. This is just showing us where to do it.”
On Brandon Farms, they’re paying particular attention to areas that Waring suspects or has confirmed heavy nematode pressure.
The aerial imagery indicates areas that have some type of stress, then Waring takes soil samples there in hopes of pinpointing the issue. It could be nematodes or it could be a pH issue or a disease.
“Eliminating what it’s not will maybe get you closer to what it is,” Bob said. “This is what we’re trying to do with all different pests and issues, but with nematodes a big problem on our farm now, that’s what we’re focusing on.”
They’re also focused on getting other farmers and researchers involved to expand the data on different crop issues.
Waring and Kroeger have talked at several field days and conferences about their work and their need for more information.
“Getting people to partner in this is a key hurdle we’ve got to get over,” Waring said. “You’ve got to think bigger picture here. If you have more people like us with similar mindsets, me being the farmer and Kenny with the equipment, you could easily advance things a lot faster.”
Things could also move a lot faster now that the Federal Aviation Administration last week announced the creation of a new category of aviation rules designed specifically for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
The long-anticipated rules mean commercial operators can fly drones without special permission. (See article, above).
On Sept. 21, Brandon Farms will be part of the National Small Farm Conference’s farm tour focusing on precision agriculture.
Along with discussing the many research trials on the farm, Kroeger plans to have a flying demonstration where an initial drone surveys a field and then that drone directs other drones to closer inspect certain parts of the field for issues.