Precision agriculture isolates individual plant

Dave Mowers and partner take on UAV venture

By Jim Nowlan
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Precision agriculture can now scout a field from the air and isolate on a computer screen each of the 35,000 individual corn plants (per acre) in a farmer’s fields! Science fiction has come to farming.

“I do see a time when we have applicators that spray each specific plant according to its needs,” declared David Mowers, veteran soil management and crop production specialist.

Mowers, of Toulon, and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) specialist Jay Kristensen, of Gibson City, are teaming up to offer farmers high tech soil and crop measurement services based on multi-spectral images of their fields.

Jay is a co-owner and Mowers a consultant to Air One—Unmanned Aerial Systems. They tell prospective clients they can perform such wizardry as to identify stress on crops up to 14 days before the naked eye can see the stress, among about a dozen other services (noted below).

The big challenge for the Air One is to convince farmers in the present environment of razor-thin profit margins that the company can achieve a positive benefit-cost ratio for farmers. Landowners appear to range from skeptical to enthusiastic about the new world of precision aerial crop management.

Dave Mowers

So, The News went on a ride with Dave this past week out to a field near Camp Grove where we met up with farmer Pete Gill, son of my contemporary Gene Gill, who operates in Stark and adjoining counties.

The objective was to show Pete how the aerial scouting worked.

Jay travels with a big trailer. Inside are UAVs (the industry doesn’t like the term “drones”), huge computer screen, battery chargers, work benches and all sorts of paraphernalia. This allows Air One to scout a field from up to 400 feet above ground, taking hundreds of images per field, using gigabytes of data, and peering down on a field to a resolution of 2 centimeters (two-thirds of an inch)!

Jay, in his 40s, is a former commercial photographer and avid pilot of both manned and unmanned aircraft. An enthusiastic fellow, Jay loves to talk about the new venture.

We are in a wheat field (the Gills are double-cropping wheat and soybeans here) north of the old Duck Inn roadhouse, a favorite of mine decades ago.

Jay takes out a DJI Matrice quad-copter, two feet square, with its four tiny white plastic propellers above a carbon-fiber frame, looking every bit like a huge bug used in the graphics for a sci-fi thriller movie.

Jay tells me the UAV can stay up in the air 25 to 30 minutes, but less on a windy day, as the UAV has to use energy fighting the wind to stay where it needs to be.

“I never run out of battery,” Jay explains. He has a multi-battery charger in the trailer, so he can keep a UAV in the air continually, as needed.

Jay then sets up a big tripod with tablet atop, from which he uses GPS to identify the parameters of the 160-acre field. His software program then feeds data to the UAV, sitting on the ground, ready for take-off.

The data tells the UAV how to make precise multiple trips up and down the field, snapping visible light and near infra-red images every one to two seconds. The images are then stitched together, by the computer program, naturally, to show the field in multi-colors, which can identify stress, weeds and much more.

As Jay sets up his equipment, Dave relaxes in a bucket chair. Senior to Jay by two decades, Dave does the interpretive work after all the technology is applied to the UAV imaging activity.

Pete Gill and I look over the shoulder of Jay as he sets up the flight, which will be totally controlled by the computer program, though Jay can take over as necessary.

Pete, a 1985 Wyoming High and University of Illinois agriculture grad, is apparently already planning to use the UAV service on a trial basis. He tells me, however, “They have to show me how I make money off this. With fertilizer, hybrid seeds, GPS, I could see the pay-off immediately.

“This needs to be more than pretty pictures. Is this something I can take action on to increase income or reduce costs?”

Pete does allow that the aerial images can tell him much more than he ever could see walking a field, which is like a blind man touching the elephant in a few places and then asking him to describe what an elephant looks like.

The flight over Pete’s field takes only a few minutes. The copter is a tiny speck high in the sunlit sky, coursing back and forth across the field, making the high-pitched hum of a bee.

But Pete has had to take off to deal with a flat tire on a piece of planting equipment in another field. They will all analyze the data later.

Technological change coming on a warp speed

“We’re in a discovery mode,” says Jay. “We are finding new uses all the time for this technology. Four years ago, the idea of what we are doing out here in this field today would have been out of the question. Our capabilities are increasing rapidly.

“With technological change, it’s either keep up or get out of the way, I think,” Jay muses.

The services Air One provides right now include data analysis of crop and weed population statistics, stress conditions, canopy closure, yield potential, field tile location, storm damage, and irrigation inspection.

Air One recommends three flights per year at various stages of plant development for optimal levels of data collection. And over several years, the data will provide trends for assisting in future decision making, the duo contends.

“In my crop survey business,” says Dave, “we scouted 60,000 acres from the ground. Now, UAVs can do most of that work in a fraction of the time.”

Dave tells me that UAV will never completely replace boots on the ground, yet the images can pin-point possible problem spots, and direct farmers to their exact locations.

“The big money is in data and software,” Dave adds, “which will bring together elements such as yields, variable rate fertilizer and seeding, weather, and soil types—to tell the farmer how to get the most productivity out of his land.”

Hang onto your hats, farmers. Your world, it is a changin’ really fast, as you already know.

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