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Drone Technology for evaluating soil productivity and analysing plant health

01 May 2018


Towards the end of last year lnta-Ag Ltd purchased a Phantom 4 Drone. We worked through Dronemate, a Nelson based company who have a history of mapping and associated software. After a short course learning the basics about software inputs and programming flight paths I was ready to fly. With a certain level of trepidation after entering appropriate data onto ipad and not having the confidence and trust in technology that a gen Z might have, we got underway. Post take off my initial concern was getting the drone home, as I had heard that someone had pressed their return home button and the last reported sighting was it heading towards China. Thankfully my maiden flight went well.

There are several programmes available to tog flight paths for horticultural mapping. This involves setting your altitude. photo overlap and frequency along with other parameters. These photos can then be processed by selected software packages to formulate and collate information in a number of different ways. At this point we have used imagery to provide aerial still shots looking for growth patterns in individual crops, we have used imagery to quantify spray drift and assessed the percentages of crop toss and we have video footage of machinery operations. currently we are using a standard lens for our photography, but there are a number of filters available.

When the drone is programmed to map or survey a crop, a series of photos are taken at regular intervals. these can be viewed individually or can be knitted together by software programmes to form an orthomosaic representation of the surveyed area. These files allow you to zoom in and out of an image in the same way as you would on google earth. The resolution and altitude will determine the clarity of the final imagery. We are able to create orthomosaics if required. Where to from here? Possibly the next step for us is NOVI mapping or imagery. This involves an additional camera with an NIR lens with the intention of picking up chlorophyll levels, indicating crop health. various intensities will appear as different colours and can be zoned to potentially create management areas. I say potentially. as across a paddock there may be different reasons for less than optimal crop performance showing up as a similar colour. Maps providing information such as pH and soil type can be integrated with crop performance data to build up information.

Mapping of paddocks, analysing data and creating meaningful files is time consuming, so we need to look at the best ways of utilising this technology. One way to make good use is that we survey blocks and generate maps highlighting areas of reduced health prior to physically monitoring the crop, in this way agronomists and growers have targeted areas to check. We are working with some growers at the moment in a limited capacity. If anyone is interested in utilising this technology we would be pleased to discuss how we could be of benefit.

By Gary Graham

Click here to view Inta-Ag's Drone Footage