Ag Insights – 5 Ways Agricultural UAVs Are Helping Researchers in the Field

senseFly recently hosted its Ag Drone Insights 3 webinar, which featured three expert agronomists from around the world. Each presenter had a wealth of knowledge to share, with each discussing their experience using UAVs and how drones are helping them successfully carry out their agricultural research.If you happened to miss the webinar, here are five key takeaways from the session, as discussed by Dr. Jörg Perner, CEO U.A.S. Umwelt- und Agrarstudien GmbH (U.A.S.), Amanda Shine, graduate student at the University of Nebraska and Néstor Di Leo, professor and researcher at the Agronomy College at Argentina’s National University of Rosario.

1) The data collected by agricultural drones can improve objectivity.

It’s no secret that the validity or objectivity of data is critical to researchers, and that was one of the main topics of Dr. Perner’s presentation. He spoke of field assessments and how time-consuming manual assessments can be. But more than that, he spoke about manual field assessments and how the very physical presence of researchers collecting data in the field has the potential to influence or “disturb” the data collected.

For Dr. Perner’s research, which involved fungicidal trial assessments, the data collected by the drones he used was very accurate when compared to the data collected by his team manually. What’s more, Dr. Perner was keen to emphasize that while his research adhered to clear guidelines in order mitigate any undesired “disturbance factors,” the use of drones had the added benefit of helping to detect those disturbance factors.

“Manual assessments are very, very time-consuming, said Dr. Perner. “Using drones to conduct aerial surveys may simplify or possibly replace manual assessments, making it possible to establish digital assessment parameters, which may supply more objective or reproducible results of those assessments.”

That benefit was also shared by Amanda, whose research looks at the effect of grazing strategy on dung distribution. Because this was conducted over a wide swathe of land – about 50 to 60 acres – in the Nebraska Sandhills, she enlisted the help of drone-sourced imagery to detect the dung and then model the distribution. To do that, she used a senseFly eBee Plus, eMotion flight-planning software and Pix4D to process the images collected.Using drones to conduct aerial surveys may simplify or possibly replace manual assessments.Like Dr. Perner, Amanda also found that using drones helped improve the objectivity of her data. “People get tired, they get hot, they count dung pats twice, they miss dung pats, she said. “Having an aerial image of the pasture just as it is, is just straight-up objective – you can’t argue with that.”

2) Agricultural drones are dependable.

The inherent promise of any technology is a potential for improvement; to provide some sort of benefit that will make the user’s work easier. For the Ag Insights 3 presenters, that promise was fully realized thanks to the reliability of the drones they used.Having an aerial image of the pasture just as it is, is just straight-up objective – you can’t argue with that.Amanda was particularly impressed with the robust and dependable nature of her drone. She explained that the number of missed flights due to technical failures, either with the senseFly eBee or the eMotion software, was zero. This figure, she explained, also took into account any unusable flight files due to technical failures with processing. And that was with over 50 flights conducted!

“Those of you doing research already know that when you’re using any kind of technology and you get to the field, it often doesn’t work,” said Amanda. “It’s incredibly frustrating, so getting through an entire season with no failures was just fantastic.”

When it works, technology can prove invaluable. When it doesn’t, it has the potential to waste precious time and money. Amanda explained it best in her presentation when she said, “I liked knowing that every time I put the drone up in the air, it was going to come back with data that I needed.”

3) Agricultural drones promote cross-collaboration.

Another important thing we learned from the webinar is just how versatile drones and drone software can be. And how the data collected can be repurposed, thanks in large part to the accuracy and objectivity of remote photogrammetry.I liked knowing that every time I put the drone up in the air, it was going to come back with data that I needed.In her presentation, Amanda discussed how drones can benefit future planning and data collection across disciplines. Again, this ties back to the accuracy of the data collected. If someone doesn’t believe your results, they can simply look at your images or they can reproduce the data themselves by using the same drone.

The imagery captured can then be used by other scientists or land managers. Amanda sees this as promoting a “cross-pollination” of ideas within science; that someone else can utilize the data captured and glean useful information from it.“Somebody else with a particular expertise might be able to look at something in your images and pull some really useful information from it that you would never have imagined,” said Amanda. “And that’s really exciting in science to think about multiple uses with one dataset.”

Her presentation also spoke to the long-term benefits of drone-sourced data versus data collected manually.

The example she gave was that of the legacy effects of vegetation utilization and dung distribution patterns. Currently, there is not a lot of information at the macro scale about how these two variables play out over time, or how grazing strategy might affect both factors, so having multi-year data from an aerial viewpoint has a lot to offer in terms of future agricultural and ecological insights.

4) Agricultural drones provide better management decisions.

The last decade or so has seen a steady change in the way businesses operate at a strategic level. No longer are important decisions made on intuition or “from the gut.” Instead, there has been a steady push to collect and utilize more data and analytics to drive decision-making.

Professor Di Leo believes that that philosophy has successfully infiltrated agriculture and agronomy science, where data is now the driving force behind agriculture. As Di Leo remarked during his presentation, “We’re moving from decision-making with little technical information to the “big data” concept.”

This, according to Di Leo, has allowed for better management decision over crops, pastures, orchards and so on. Thanks to drones – and the data derived from the images they capture – farmers can be more efficient when making economic and environmental decisions. This is due to the increasing role drones are playing in the collection of data.We’re moving from decision-making with little technical information to the “big data” concept.In Argentina, he explained, drone technology is helping farmers and professionals in the field to gather data in real-time, which in turn helps them make better decisions when it comes to crop management, fertilization, water access monitoring, etc.

5) Drones are cool and a great teaching tool.

If you’re familiar with Waypoint then you know we’re rather fond of drones, and we happen to think they’re pretty cool, too. Of course, it’s always a treat to hear that we’re not the only ones who feel that way.

While drones being “cool” might seem like a more lighthearted takeaway from the webinar, it’s an important one nonetheless. For example, in her presentation, Amanda was keen to point out that using drones to conduct field research has had a positive impact when it comes to recruiting graduate students.“I would be remiss if I did not mention the huge impact have on the recruitment of graduate students, she said in her presentation. “If you are a professor and have ever tried to convince a potential student that they’re going to do great things for the world of science by walking around a Nebraska pasture in the middle of nowhere, in 95-degree heat, counting cattle dung pats, you probably weren’t very successful…but if you add a drone to the equation, you might be slightly more successful.”

In addition to a cool and convenient way to conduct research, Professor Di Leo believes that drones are a great pedagogic tool, both at the university level and at the high-school/secondary school level.

As an educator, Di Leo expressed how pleased he is at how drones, such as his eBee SQ, are positively impacting the way he teaches, particularly when it comes to agronomy. For Di Leo, there is a long list of applications that drones have helped him teach, ranging from topography and water conservation to crop nutrition and soil management.Are you using drones for research purposes? What has your experience been? And have you come across any particularly interesting benefits? Let us know in the comments section below.Watch senseFly’s full Ag Drone Insights 3 webinar.