Farmers looking at how to capture more information about their in-season crop performance so they can turn around quickly and make management decisions are tapping into aerial imagery. Erich Eller, owner of ForeFront Ag Solutions, Huntington, Ind., says imagery plays an important role in his crop evaluation and scouting practices with his farmer clients.
“The ultimate goal is to collect the (data/imagery) at the correct time, analyze it and turn it around into information that is actionable out in the field as quickly as possible, he says.
Knowing when and what option to use to capture the imagery is valuable—whether it’s from a satellite, drone (UAV) or airplane—because each one can fill a specific need.
Eller shared his basic strategy for each platform at the Farm Journal AgTech Expo. Here’s an overview.
Satellite Imagery – Eller likes to use some satellite imagery early in the spring, mainly because of manpower reasons. Like farmers, Eller works long days during spring, “but I can go to my computer late at night and pull in some imagery to review,” he says. The next day Eller then goes to the field to ground truth any potential problems the imagery shows. “In a lot of cases the issue may just be in a 5-acre area, so I won’t have to walk the whole 150-acre field which can save a lot of time,” he says. The upsides to satellite imagery: It’s cost-effective due to broad-scale coverage and provides a better economy of scale. The down sides: some satellite subscriptions go over an area only every few days or once a week, which can make getting time-sensitive information a challenge. Along with that, a cloud cover or bad weather can stall imaging, which can then delay information you need to make a decision.
Drones (UAVs) – The two main options are fixed-wing vehicles or helicopter-style vehicles. Which one you pick should depend on what your goal is for it, Eller says. “With my fixed wing I can get over more acres, my cameras are higher quality, and I can change them out,” he notes. “The thing I like about using a chopper is it can hover over an area so you can get a really detailed look at something, but it can’t cover a lot of ground. Sometimes I’ll fly the fixed wing over the field and then come back with the chopper to check out some specific spots.” Other upsides to drones: information the drone collects is usually faster to access, giving farmers more time to react to pest issues, nutrient needs or other issues. However, that’s only if the farmer has the time and ability to fly the drone, analyze the information and then make decisions from it.
Manned Flights – Eller says as he’s improved his scouting practices with drones, he is relying “less and less” on having people fly over fields to capture field images. However, for farmers who don’t want to buy a drone and manage the results or who have thousands of acres to cover, this is still a good option. Aerial or manned aircraft can be flown on a schedule or a per order basis.
At the end of the day, Eller says each of the three options has its pros and cons. “They’re all good tools, but they can’t take the place of boots on the ground. We still need to walk out in those fields and ground truth the results.”