Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage. Breakthrough
Easy-to-use agricultural drones equipped with cameras, for less than $1,000. Why It Matters
Close monitoring of crops could improve water use and pest management. Key Players
Ryan Kunde is a winemaker whose family’s picture-perfect vineyard nestles in the Sonoma Valley north of San Francisco. But Kunde is not your average farmer. He’s also a drone operator—and he’s not alone. He’s part of the vanguard of farmers who are using what was once military aviation technology to grow better grapes using pictures from the air, part of a broader trend of using sensors and robotics to bring big data to precision agriculture. Top: A drone from PrecisionHawk is equipped with multiple sensors to image fields.
Bottom: This image depicts vegetation in near-infrared light to show chlorophyll levels. What “drones” means to Kunde and the growing number of farmers like him is simply a low-cost aerial camera platform: either miniature fixed-wing airplanes or, more commonly, quadcopters and other multibladed small helicopters. These aircraft are equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a standard point-and-shoot camera controlled by the autopilot; software on the ground can stitch aerial shots into a high-resolution mosaic map. Whereas a traditional radio-controlled aircraft needs to be flown by a pilot on the ground, in Kunde’s drone the autopilot (made by my company, 3D Robotics) does all the flying, from auto takeoff to landing. Its software plans the flight path, aiming for maximum coverage of the vineyards, and controls the camera to optimize the images for later analysis. This low-altitude view (from a few meters above the plants to around 120 meters, which is the regulatory ceiling in the United States for unmanned aircraft operating without special...
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