Knowing that farmers and reporters would inevitably call the little, computer-piloted plane a “drone,” the organizers of the field demonstration of a UAS, or “unmanned aerial system,” for farm use put both terms in the invitation.
The demo, organized by Southern States Cooperative, was held on a recent morning outside the Nellwood Farm pondhouse near Brooklet. Brothers Chap and Hal Cromley, and Chap’s son David and Hal’s son Colby, operate Nellwood Farm. David and Colby are in the sixth generation of Cromleys to farm in Bulloch County.
“My family – my dad, my uncle – have been really open to the idea of utilizing new technology, and there’s a lot of farmers that are, and it has really made us more efficient with everything from fertilizer applications to planting, to every aspect of our operation,” said David Cromley, 27.
He had observed that a new generation of farmers, as reflected in an active Georgia Farm Bureau Young Farmer chapter, make the Statesboro area a potentially strong market for technologies such as agricultural drones. But as he noted, the older Cromleys have also invested in equipment such as Global Positioning System-guided tractors and sprayers, and cotton harvesters that supply precise yield-mapping data.
When coupled with GPS satellite data and normal-color and near-infrared photographic analysis, a drone similar in size to the radio-controlled planes flown by hobbyists can supply farmers with information on the health of their crops.
By showing yellow, brown or less-green spots in the field, the photos could help identify problems ranging from a stopped-up nozzle on an irrigation boom to the beginnings of a caterpillar infestation. In the latter case, the GPS coordinates can then guide targeted spraying.
“You might be able to just treat that specific area in the field, so it could really help us be more efficient with our use of our resources,” Cromley said.
Southern States Cooperative has teamed up with Waypoint Global Strategies to offer farmers an alternative to buying their own drones and analytical software. If they were to do that, the UAS would cost about $25,000, said Josh Olds, flight operations director for Waypoint Global Strategies.
Southern States already offered satellite data analysis to help farmers better manage their land for economic efficiency and environmental stewardship, said Elliott Marsh, the cooperative’s precision ag coordinator for the Statesboro area.
“For us this is a part of the package,” Marsh said. “We know that not every grower is going to want to use this type of technology. That’s why we’re also working with satellite imagery, we’re working with ground truth, we’re working with a whole portfolio of products so we can customize it for the grower and for the field.”
Southern States is a farmer-owned company active in farm supply and agricultural processing in 23 states. But instead of trying to develop its own drone program, the cooperative has contracted with a firm experienced in the technology, Marsh noted.
Waypoint Global Strategies of Mailtand, Florida, does other types of unmanned aerial vehicle work, including oil field surveillance and law enforcement uses. The company employs pilots who are licensed to fly manned aircraft.
Waypoint has also given input to the Federal Aviation Administration as it develops its first real rules for the commercial use of drones. The FAA proposed rules in February and is slated to complete the rulemaking process before July 2016.
For the demo, Waypoint applied for and received FAA Section 333 clearance. This existing federal law requires that every commercial plane be certified and have a licensed pilot. Section 333 contains a general exemption for hobby drones, but not for commercial use.
Commercial operators even have to issue notices to pilots of human-occupied planes.
“Because the airspace is controlled by the FAA, not only do you need the Section 333, but we had to file a notice to airmen,” Olds said. “That way any operators that were flying around the local area knew that we were here and we were operating under 200 feet.”
The FAA has proposed allowing commercial drones up to 500 feet. But Waypoint’s Section 333 permission was for a flight to 200 feet above ground level, said Greg Kolt, who accompanied Olds as Waypoint’s “visual observer” for the flight. For now, the FAA is also requiring that drones remain where the operator can see them.
Olds has aeronautical science degree in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Kolt is an Embry-Riddle flight instructor. They surveyed the area in advance, taking note of any tall trees or other obstacles in the area, and programmed a “geofence” of GPS points to keep the plane in sight.
All of this was done to ensure the safety of a plane made mostly of plastic foam, with a 38-inch wingspan. The SenseFly eBee weighs a hair over 1.5 pounds. Yet it also has a sophisticated autopilot with sensors for altitude and speed.
Instead of a built-in camera, the eBee has a compartment where a quality point-and-shoot camera is inserted, with its lens pointing downward through a hole. Olds mentioned an 18 megapixel Cannon Powershot as a camera typically used.
When the motor powered up, he launched the plane out of his hand. He has a joystick available, but usually avoids using it. The plane flies entirely on a programmed flight plan from a radio link with a laptop computer.
The plane returned and landed minutes later, after photographing a 10-acre sample of one of the Cromleys’ eanut fields. But Olds also had images from a previous flight of 170 acres of soybeans, elsewhere, for display.
Checking for green
By comparing the regular color photos with those taken in near-infrared, the system can also produce Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI, overlays showing areas lacking chlorophyll in red.
From 200 feet, the pictures sometimes show individual leaves. This is much more detail than is available from satellite images, where a pixel represents an area at least half a meter, or about 20 inches, wide, Olds explained. The system can also produce elevation maps for gauging plant height or tracking runoff.
The plane makes parallel passes to take overlapping pictures. After it lands and the images are downloaded, the software lines them up pixel-to-pixel to make a map of the whole field. The processing can take hours for large fields.
“An area like 500 acres, up to 1,000 acres, it could take two to three days to turn that imagery around and get it back to the farmer,” Olds said.
He acknowledged that, at least in the current regulatory situation, drone overflights will not be cost effective for every farmer.
“Right now, I think it’s very valuable to large-volume farms to help increase productivity, increase crop yield,” he said. “For a 10-acre farm, is it going to be able to tell them enough to save them money? Probably not.”
So far, Southern States has not set a pricing structure for this service, but is working on it and plans to make UAS service generally available for the 2016 growing season, Marsh said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.