Best Drones For Agriculture 2017: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

pre-flight plan for quadcopter on DroneFly

Who This Guide is For

This ag drone buyer’s guide is for farmers and agriculture service professionals who want to use unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the health of crops and livestock.

It covers everything you need to know, including drone reviews of the leading UAVs used for precision agriculture; popular imaging software packages & services; a short list of UAV surveyors; and the latest FAA regulations governing use of drones in agriculture.

  • If you are interested in flying your own fixed wing or multi-rotor agriculture drone, then this guide will tell you everything you need to know to select and buy the right UAV for your needs.
  • If you plan to hire a third party to survey crops for you, then this guide will make you a smarter buyer.

In this guide you’ll learn about:

  • the most popular ag drones selling today (fixed wing and multi rotor)
  • how & why drones are used to scout fields & crops to check the health of plants
  • the benefits & limitations of using drones vs. other aerial survey methods
  • the different software and hardware components required
  • how to get started – including a short list of ready-to-fly drone packages designed specifically for agriculture and a short list of ag drone service companies you can hire, to survey for you.

TIP: Use the Contents box in the upper right corner of this guide to view everything contained this guide, and to jump straight to what you’re after.

Professionals Only, Please

Agriculture drones are not your run-of-the-mill consumer-grade camera drone or racing drone. They are advanced data-gathering tools for serious professionals.  Prices for complete, ready-to-fly ag drone systems range from $1,500 to well over $25,000.

There are two types of professionals who might want to own an agriculture drone:

  1. farmers who want to fly their own imaging missions; and,
  2. agriculture service providers and others who fly drones for farmers.

If you fit into either of these categories, then please note:

The FAA views all agricultural drone activity as commercial drone operation. 

This means the drone operator must have a Remote Pilot Certificate to fly.  This is true, even if no money changes hands.

To learn more about the FAA’s pilot requirements, check out our drone operator safety guide.

In other words, there’s no such thing as an amateur agriculture drone operator.

So, if you get pitched by a drone outfit claiming they don’t need a remote pilot certificate to survey your field, then run – far, far away.


The Best Agriculture Drones/UAVs (Ready To Fly)

Listed below are the most popular ready-to-fly agriculture drone/UAV/UAS systems in the world, both fixed-wing and multi-rotor.

All of these unmanned aerial survey drones are delivered ready-to-fly and are equipped with all the software, sensors and hardware you’ll need to check the health of crops, track livestock and survey farmland.

The market is changing quickly, however.

Some of the early entrants are gone now, and most suppliers update their prices, features, rigs and software packages on what seems like a monthly basis. Make sure you check the manufacturer’s website for the latest details.


The Best Fixed Wing Ag Drones

AgEagle RAPID - flying over field

Fixed-wing UAVs are the best choice when you have to cover a lot of ground, fast. Fixed-wing ag drones can cover up to 10 times the acreage that a typical quadcopter can cover in a single flight.

That said, image quality can suffer due to the speed. For example, fixed wing UAVs are often unable to capture survey-grade 3D / topographic detail.


senseFly eBee SQ ($12,000+)

The eBee SQ is the latest update of the eBee Ag UAV, a proven and popular choice among ag service providers who need to cover a lot of ground, fast. To date, the eBee series has logged more than 300,000 missions.

A Complete Ag Solution

This drone is easy to fly and comes with senseFLY’s Sequoia 5-spectrum sensor (4 spectral bands + visible/RGB) and advanced, flight planning, flight management and image processing software designed specifically to work within a complete drone-to-tractor workflow.

Flight Planning Simplified

The eBee SQ includes their proprietary eMotion Ag flight planning and ground station software, making the process of creating a flight plan really simple.

To get started, just upload your field boundaries from your existing FMIS system, like Ag Leader’s SMS or Trimble’s FarmWorks; or, you can draw them on-screen.

To launch a new mission, the pilot only needs to establish the area to survey, set the image resolution and define the desired image overlap. Then, the software generates an optimal flight plan.

500 Acres in a Single Charge

Because this UAV is so fast, the eBee SQ can capture multi-spectral and visual data on hundreds of acres of crops in a single flight.

Once you’ve captured that data, you can process it using any popular software of your choice such as Pix4Dmapper Ag/Pro software, MicaSense ATLAS or AIRINOV to create vegetation index maps.

Some of the information you can capture in a single eBee flight include:

  • Vegetation indices (NDVI, CCCI, NDRE, MCARI, CWSI, et al)
  • Plant counts
  • Soil H20 levels
  • Soil temp
  • Topography / 3D mapping (limited / not survey quality)

Take Action Now

Using your index maps, you can then generate prescription maps using Pix4Dmapper Ag (optional) & upload them into your FMIS system or a tractor; or, you can process the data further using another index map solution such as SMS, AgPixel, QGIS, ArcGIS, Global mapper and other popular GIS systems.

Specifications

  • 1.1 kg / 2.4 lbs
  • Sequoia multi-spectral sensor provides more accurate data than NIR options
  • 55 minute flight time
  • Up to 500 acres per flight (400 ft elevation, 12 cm/pixel resolution)

LEARN MORE AT SENSEFLY


PrecisionHawk Lancaster 5 ($25,000+)

Another very popular choice with ag surveyors, PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster fixed wing UAV carries the widest range of aerial sensors and is the most “intelligent” fixed-wing drone designed for agriculture.

The latest release, Lancaster 5, adds a ruggedized chassis that is more durable on hard landings; a new tail structure; a longer wingspan to improve stability; more intelligent on-board flight control.

Intelligent & Aware

Agriculture drone buyers guide - PrecisionHawk Lancaster

In addition to the mandatory downward-facing multispectral sensor, the Lancaster carries on-board sensors that measure humidity, temperature, air pressure along with incident light, all in real time. It then uses artificial intelligence to react to changing weather conditions, payload, changing wind loads, visibility, etc.

Flight Planning

Flight planning couldn’t be simpler – just select your target altitude and desired ground resolution, and the Lancaster creates a flight plan automatically.  Then, just toss the aircraft like a paper plane, to begin your survey.

When it’s finished, the Lancaster will land itself, automatically.

Flight Control

PrecisionHawks’ InFlight flight monitoring and tracking software gives you real-time data on flight path, position, altitude, aircraft performance and battery life.

Sensors

The Lancaster platform is built on open source software that makes it easy for developers to design & integrate sensors for any need. Agriculture drone buyers guide - PrecisionHawk Lancaster - sensors available

A wide range of sensors are available to capture visual, thermal/IR, multispectral, LIDAR and hyperspectral data.

Agriculture drone buyers guide - PrecisionHawk Lancaster - swappable sensor bay

Changing a sensor is a snap, too – the process is 100% Plug and Play, with no configuration required.

Mapping and Analysis

The Lancaster 5 comes with PrecisionHawk’s outstanding DataMapper data management and analysis solution.  Available as desktop software or through the cloud, DataMapper produces accurate 2D and 3D maps into geo-referenced mosaics.

From there, you can process field data using algorithms and indexers available on the DataMapper AlgoMarket.

Agriculture drone buyers guide - PrecisionHawk Lancaster - AlgoMarket

On AlgoMarket, you can select and purchase data processing for any purpose – a wide range of indices are available including:

  • Plant height
  • Plant count
  • Enhanced NDVI
  • Field Uniformity
  • Volume measurement
  • Optimized Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index (OSAVI)
  • Water pooling
  • And many more

PrecisionHawk Lancaster 5 Specifications

  • 5.3 lbs dry weight
  • 2.2 lb payload
  • 45 minute flight time
  • 2km / 1.2 mile range
  • 300 acres per flight (300 ft altitude)
  • Plug-and-Play sensor bay
  • 5-channel multispectral camera available
  • One-button press to launch (cool feature)
  • Data resolution down to 1 cm/pixel
LEARN MORE AT PRECISIONHAWK

Other Fixed Wing Ag Drones

  • AgDrone by HoneyComb ($10,000+): a complete hardware/software/data storage package with a variety of sensors available including NDVI, visual stereoscopic and NIR (thermal imaging). Flight times up to 55 minutes. Comes with flight planning/control software and all the hardware you need.
  • Sentera Phoenix 2 ($18,000): a complete hardware, software and data storage solution designed for crop surveying. Captures RGB visual, NIR, NDVI and Live NDVI (streaming) during same flight. Covers 100 acres per flight.
  • AgEagle RX60: a super-rugged ‘flying wing’ made of fiberglass and carbon fiber, this UAV can fly for up to 60 minutes on a charge. Captures NDVI, NIR and visual images using GoPro and other sensors. Package includes aircraft, launcher, camera, software and training.
  • Trimble UX5 ($25,000+): the French aerospace company, Trimble, sells its highly advanced UX5 drone in the US through local resellers. Hardware, software and processing are included. Using an optional MicaSense RedEdge or 24MP visual camera, the UX5 can capture data down to a 2cm/pixel resolution and operates in the harshest of environments. 

The Best Multi Rotor Ag Drones

best drone for the job - multi rotor ag drone

A multi rotor drone is a better choice for close-in scouting, spotting and detailed surveying tasks than a fixed wing drone.

Flying a multi rotor drone, low and slow, gives you far more control over every image you shoot. As a result, accuracy and resolution are often better than fixed wing UAVs can deliver.

The tradeoff, of course, is you have far less range and coverage per flight. Most multi rotor ag drones can’t cover more than 50 acres between charges / battery swaps.


PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package ($1,989)

Agriculture drone buyers guide - PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package with Phantom 4 PRO

PrecisionHawk sells a starter-level quadcopter package that includes a Phantom 4 PRO with included visual sensor, DataMapper Lite image processing software (1 year subscription including a few VIS-data algorithms), InField flight monitoring software, and InFlight flight control and monitoring mobile app that allows you to control the aircraft using your smartphone.

The Phantom 4 PRO is an excellent camera drone that is more than capable of most visual surveying tasks; but, there are additional costs to turn this package a complete crop surveying solution. And, it has its limitations.

For example, it has no multispectral sensor to capture NDVI data, and you’ll probably need to purchase additional Datamapper algorithms to extract value out of the images you shoot.  

LEARN MORE AT PRECISIONHAWK

Sentera NDVI Upgrade for DJI Phantom 4 PRO (about $2,000)

Agriculture drone buyers guide - Sentera DJI NDVI upgrade for Phantom 4 PRO

This is a great starter ag drone, especially for scouting.

Sentera sells a TrueNDVI camera upgrade for DJI’s wildly popular and easy to use Phantom 3 and Phantom 4 quad copters.  They’ll also sell you a new Phantom 4 PRO, fully equipped.

The kit integrates a 1.2MP NIR global shutter camera alongside your existing Phantom camera, so you get the best of both worlds — a fully-gimbaled color camera for scouting, plus NIR photos for NDVI indexing.

Photos are geo-tagged and timestamped to enable quick, streamlined field scouting and identification of problem areas.

The package includes a free version of Sentera’s AgVault image processing software.

Two downsides, though: you’ll have to ship your Phantom quad to Sentera to perform the upgrade; and, attaching a second camera voids DJI’s warranty.

LEARN MORE AT SENTERA

DJI Smarter Farming Package ($8,300)

 Agriculture drone buyers guide - DJI Smarter Farming package - full kit

DJI’s Smarter Farming package is an affordable and easy-to-fly ag surveying solution for professional ag service providers and serious farm operators.

Unlike PrecisionHawk’s Crop Scouting Package, this rig is a proper multispectral agriculture surveying platform.

And, unlike Sentera’s bolt-on NDVI camera, DJI’s warranty remains intact.

Agriculture drone buyers guide - DJI Smarter Farming package - InField and Datamapper

The DJI Smart Farming Package includes their easy-to-fly Matrice 100 flying platform with two onboard sensors (visible and NDVI) installed. 

For image processing, the package comes with PrecisionHawk’s excellent DataMapper solution.

Everything is integrated, tested and ready to got to work, out of the box.

LEARN MORE AT DJI

AGCO Solo ($7,850)

Based on the 3DR Solo quadcopter, the AGCO SOLO add-on kit includes a GoPro Hero 4 camera for color imaging and a GoPro near-infrared camera for monitoring plant health.

This UAV also includes one year of Agribotix imaging software. The package produces high-resolution orthomosaics, NDVI maps, and Field Health and Management Zone maps. Useful flight time is about 20 minutes.

LEARN MORE AT AGCO

Sentera Omni Ag ($16,995)

Agriculture drone buyers guide - Sentera Omni Ag full kit

Using Sentera’s Double 4K multispectral sensor, the Omni Ag is a completely integrated hardware + software package that captures high resolution RGB visual, NIR, NDVI and Live (streaming) NDVI data – all at the same time.  

Uniquely, the Omni Ag drone can stream live NDVI crop data as it flies, which means you get instant feedback on crop health and can take action before it lands.  I don’t know of any other quads that can do this, right now. 

The Omni Ag drone can be controlled by your smartphone or the dedicated flight controller.

Image processing is handled using Sentera’s AgVault 2.0 software

LEARN MORE AT SENTERA

Other Multi Rotor Ag Drones

  • senseFly eXom:  the eXom is a quadcopter developed by French drone manufacturer, Parrot, specifically for agriculture applications. This package includes an image processing pipeline based on Pix4D’s popular cloud-based solution.
  • AgBot by Aerial Technology International ($8,000+): ATI’s package offers IR, Multispectral and HD video modules (quick release/swappable); 26-minute flight time; 16 mile range; rugged carbon fiber chassis; 1 fps data capture @ 38mph
  • InDago AG ($30,000+): built by Lockheed Martin, the InDago can stay aloft for 45 minutes and cover 75 acres per flight, about double that of any other quadcopter.

 


Ag Drone Service Providers

There are thousands of drone operators in the US today, and about one-third claim to offer services useful to farms.

With the FAA’s new regulations, which allow for new pilots to get their remote pilot certificate by simply taking a written test, no doubt thousands of new operators will soon be hitting the market.

But that doesn’t mean they know how to fly safely. Nor does it mean they know how to shoot orthomosaic images for your farming operation.

Here are a few reputable, experienced & certified drone operators and image service providers that currently serve agriculture businesses:

  • Empire Unmanned (ID): Empire was the first ag drone service to receive a 333 exemption in the US. Robert Blair is one of the principals and is one of the most knowledgeable speakers on using drones for precision agriculture.
  • Vine Rangers (CA): this Northern CA service provider specializes in servicing wine growers.
  • AeroHarvest: Like Vine Rangers, this CA company serves vineyards with leak detection and optimizing irrigation schedules.
  • AgWorx: A specialist in precision agriculture from Raleigh, NC. that handles everything from harvest timing to software applications for data collection on the ground and in the air.
  • Digital Harvest (formerly BOSH Precision Agriculture): This Newport News, VA, business specializes in collecting images, processing data and producing useful agricultural informatics.
  • Leading Edge Technologies: Based in Winnebago, Minnesota, Leading Edge converts drone data into farm intelligence for applications such as grain management and other precision agriculture solutions.
  • PrecisionHawk: This startup from Raleigh, NC, is creating an algorithm marketplace to help interpret and correlate data collected from satellites and drones. They also manufacture the Lancaster fixed wing drone and supply DJI with ag-specific add-ons. A leader in the industry.
  • Trimble Navigation: Aside from its massive GPS business, this Sunnyvale, CA, outfit offers many applications for precision ag, from yield monitoring to water management.
  • Wilbur-Ellis: This $3 billion farm equipment supplier is working to bring satellite and drone imagery to AgVerdict, its software platform for agronomists.
  • Measure32:  This full-service drone operator provides image survey and processing for a wide range of industries, including agriculture. They operate over 300 drones and UAVs for business purposes.

For a larger collection of agriculture drone service providers & pilots, check out DroneList.com.


What Is Precision Agriculture?

Precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops.

The goal of precision agriculture is to more efficiently apply a farm’s limited resources to gain maximum yield. A primary method for doing that is to minimize variability of crop health within and across fields. To learn more about precision agriculture, read this excellent overview published by The Economist.

Due to its nature, precision agriculture requires a LOT of data to work. The three main types of data include:

  1. geo-tagged images: visible and multi-spectral aerial images taken of fields, over time; this is where drones play
  2. equipment performance: real time feedback & logs provided by sensor-equipped manned and unmanned equipment such as seeders, spreaders, tractors and combines
  3. management data: crop yield and other data provided by farm operators

The use of precision agriculture technologies is growing very quickly, globally, according to Technavio.

Where Do Drones Fit in Precision Agriculture?

Drones are really just a new, high-precision way to obtain geo-tagged images from the air.

Compared with other aerial survey methods, drones generate more precise and more frequent data about the condition of crops. This data is used in many ways to improve the performance of a farm’s operation.

For surveying fields of less than 50 hectares in size, drones are cheaper than manned aircraft surveillance, manned scouting and satellite imaging.

Some claim that the new FAA rules will restrict the usefulness of drones for agriculture, because under the new Part 107 rules, all observation and measurement must be taken by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. This becomes a real issue for fields and farms that are bigger than VLOS.

But the vast majority of farms don’t have this problem.

According to this report, there are approximately 2.1 million farms in America. The average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 percent, meaning that 1.85 million farms can benefit immediately from ag drones.

Drones are used to gather a variety of image-based data about the condition of crops, fields and livestock – including:

  • plant height
  • plant count
  • plant health
  • presence of nutrients
  • presence of disease
  • presence of weeds
  • relative biomass estimates
  • 3D / volumetric data (piles, patches, holes and hills)

For livestock operations, drones can be used to monitor the location, status and movement of animals over time with more frequency and at a lower cost than other means.

Drone data is used to do farming jobs more effectively and efficiently, including:

  • Crop Scouting – replace men with drones
  • Crop Health Monitoring – biggest ROI, by far
  • Field Surveying/Scouting (before planting)
  • Nitrogen Recommendation
  • Yield Monitoring
  • Plant Stress Monitoring
  • Drought Assessment
  • Senescence Analysis
  • Leaf Area Indexing
  • Phenology
  • Tree Classification
  • and more

To take quick action, orthomosaic images generated by drones can be fed into an agricultural program like SMS by Ag Leader, SST Summit®, FarmRite®, Stratus®, Sirrus®” or other software tools to create prescription maps.

Prescription maps inform the farm operator where & what specific actions are needed, such as increasing or decreasing nitrogen spread on trouble spots. Prescription maps can be transferred directly into a precision applicator (sprayer) like a John Deere® or Case IH®.

Here’s a great 7-minute video segment produced by Iowa Public TV that explains why more and more farmers are incorporating drones into crop management.

Drones & Agronomy Management Systems

Because of the amount of data required, many precision farmers use agronomy management systems to collect and integrate all of the data flowing to/from their sensor-equipped tractors, combines, drones and other equipment found on farms today.

Leading agronomy management platforms include AgOS by AgWorks and MyAgCentral.

Drones interact with agronomy management systems by feeding them with rich, detailed and timely geo-tagged images. Using this data, farmers can react more quickly and more precisely than they can using other aerial imaging methods.


Drone Advantages Over Other Aerial Imaging Systems

By some measures, 80% of the global drone industry revenues are related to agriculture, in some way.

But why would farmers – some of the most risk-averse people on Earth – adopt such a new technology?

Perhaps it’s because agriculture drones offer clear advantages over other crop monitoring methods including satellite imaging, manned scouting and manned aircraft. These advantages include:

  • Cheaper Imaging: for fields less than 50 hectares in size, drones are considerably less expensive than satellites or manned aircraft surveillance.
  • Greater Precision: drone cameras take centimeter-level images that reveal much more detail about a crop’s condition.
  • Earlier Detection of Problems: because drones survey more frequently, weeds, pests and other abnormalities are detected earlier.
  • Total-Field Scouting: instead of riding an ATV around the perimeter to scout perhaps 5% of a field, now every field can be scouted 100% using drones.
  • 3D/Volumetric Data: drone images can be used to calculate the volume of piles, holes, hills and patches. These can be compared to Infrared images to detect density issues like hot spots in a crowded beet field, or to identify contour problems such as north slope shade issues.
  • More Frequent Index Reporting: drones offer a cost-effective way to monitor crops more frequently for key indices like CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index), CWSI (crop water stress index) and NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index).

In day-to-day operations, these advantages help farmers catch problems faster and react more quickly, which can save thousands of dollars in crop losses per field.

Long-term, the data generated by drones help farmers gain a more accurate & detailed picture of how their crops are reacting to their management strategies, which can lead to more effective use of limited resources.

After all, a typical family farmer only gets 40 chances (seasons) to get things right… every extra bit of knowledge helps!


How Flying Cameras Measure Crop Health

Most agriculture drones depend on multi-spectral imaging to spot problems with a crop’s health; specifically, they look at changes over time in visible light (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) light reflected by crops. These images are taken over time by drones, manned aircraft or satellites.

It is possible to detect plant health from these images because plants reflect different amounts of visible green and NIR light, depending on how healthy they are. By measuring the changes in visible and NIR light reflected from a crop, we can spot potential health issues.

This image explains the general idea:

Agriculture Drones Buyers Guide - how NIR is used to measure plant health

 

To monitor changes in plant health over time, drone images are processed to calculate a tracking index called NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index), which is a measure in the difference between light intensity reflected by the field in two different frequencies:

NDVI is the ratio of near infrared (NIR) reflectivity minus visible red reflectivity (VIS), divided by NIR plus VIS:

NDVI = (NIR-VIS)/(NIR+VIS)

Here is what you see when you compare a normal camera image of a winter wheat field to a NDVI-processed image of the same field:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - NDVI images of winter wheat field courtesy Agribotix
VIS and NDVI images of winter wheat field (courtesy Agribotix)

Notice how the NDVI-enhanced image (right) does a great job separating the healthy wheat stalks (green) from dying edges (red) and the dry earth (black/brown).

There is some debate over whether NDVI is the right index or whether the simple difference between light spectrums (NIR – VIS) is more useful.  Agribotix put together a great writeup on this debate and the misconceptions re. what NIR spotting can and cannot do today.

NDVI is the most popular index calculated using drone data, but there are many others. Some may be more or less important to your farm, depending on your situation. Some of the more popular indices include:

  • CWSI (crop water stress index): measures temperature differentials to detect/predict water stress in plants. Requires a thermal imaging sensor and the use of a nearby weather station.
  • CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index): detects canopy nitrogen levels using three wavebands along the red edge of the visible spectrum. Requires visible and near infrared cameras.

If you want to dive deep into this emerging science of agriculture image processing, here’s a list of the latest research.


First Decision: Fixed Wing or Multi-Rotor?

AgEagle RAPID - flying over field
AgEagle RAPID – flying over field

Fixed wing drones like the AgEagle RAPIDPrecisionHawk Lancaster and SenseFly eBee SQ are often preferred by farmers because they can cover more area and spend more time in the air than a multi-rotor platforms like the DJI Phantom 4.

That said, they can’t do everything and are best suited for large, open-field scanning.

Fixed wing drones often carry more payload than a multi-rotor – which means more sensors – so more information can be captured in a single flight. This can reduce the total time to collect data for a given acre.

Fixed wing drones are more expensive, too – they typically cost $5,000 to $25,000 or more, after being fitted with sensors.

ag drone over field

Multi-rotor ag drones like DJI’s Smarter Farming Matrice 100 are better-suited to precision imaging of small/constrained areas and 3D scanning of fields and objects, due to their maneuverability.

Flight times for quads and other multi-rotors are about 1/2 that of a fixed wing drone.

Payloads on many multi-rotors are less than fixed wings, so most only carry one or two sensors. As a result, covering an entire field can take twice as long as with a fixed wing.

Multi-rotor drones are generally cheaper than fixed wings, starting at around $1,500-$10,000 for a professional-grade camera drone packaged with multi-spectral cameras and software for agriculture image processing.

The Best of Both Worlds

Rather than opting for one type of drone, some farmers and operators purchase less expensive versions of both.

A fixed wing drone is used for large open spaces where long, unobstructed straight-line passes are possible; and, a small inexpensive multi-rotor is used for spot-checking trouble areas more closely, for quick scouting missions and for handling area a plane cannot fly over.

Lots of farmers today start by buying a ready-to-fly $1,500 quadcopter like a Phantom 4 PRO or an NDVI-equipped pre-tested solution like DJI’s Smarter Farming Package.

After testing the ROI of drone surveying, they may upgrade to more expensive and more efficient multi rotor and fixed wing packages that can integrate with their Farm Management Information Systems (FMIS) and Agronomy Management Systems (AMS).


Capturing The Data: Imaging & Sensors

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - visual vs multispectral vs 2D vs 3D

There are many choices of imaging sensors available today for agriculture drones. Options range from $200 for a GoPro HD camera to well over $50,000 for a hyper-spectral camera.

Cameras

Horizon Precision Chroma Camera Drone - camera and gimbal
Horizon Precision Chroma – camera and gimbal

The most common and cheapest type of sensor is a high-resolution camera, which takes visible wavelength images (VIS). Several of these cameras can also take near-infrared images (NIR) when equipped with the right filters.

The minimum image resolution required for agriculture applications is 12 megapixels, which popular drone cameras such as the GoPro Hero 3 and Hero 4 are capable of capturing.

In contrast to what most photographers will tell you, you want a camera with a wide-field, wide-angle or “fish-eye” lens, as these lenses tend to capture more area in a single shot.  Don’t worry about the image distortion – quality image processing software eliminates this during processing.

Some of the more popular cameras used in agriculture today include:

  • Sony QX1: compact, lightweight mirrorless camera takes 20 megapixel high precision Images in RAW and JPEG. VIS images only.
  • Canon EOS Rebel SL1 DSLR Camera Kit: captures VIS images only.
  • Zenmuse X3: Gimbal and camera system used on DJI systems. VIS images only.
  • GoPro Hero: lightweight and weather-proof, GoPros are used on lower-cost quadcopter drones. The Hero probably the most popular ag camera in use today. VIS images only.
  • MaxMax offers a line of Nikon, Sony and other model near-infrared (NIR) cameras priced from $500 to $5,000. NIR and VIS versions.

Multi-Spectral

AgEagle RAPID - MicaSense multispectral sensor
MicaSense Red multispectral sensor

Multi-spectral imaging sensors allow you to see things you cannot see in the visual spectrum, such as wet patches on the ground.

The MicaSense Red multi-spectral sensor (shown above) lists for $6,450.

Another option is the Sentera NDVI upgrade for the DJI Phantom series drones. This is a new ultra-lightweight NDVI sensor for Phantom 3 and Phantom 4. The DJI gimbaled camera is not modified. It captures visual-band (VIS), near-infrared (NIR), and NDVI data together during a single flight.

Thermal

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - wet soil vs dry soil
Thermal Sensors can detect wet vs. dry soil

Airborne thermal sensors can see hotspots and measure changes in land and plant temperature over time.

Thermal sensors can also detect the presence of water due to its cooling effect, which can be helpful in spotting crop damage due to drought and/or seasonal issues.

LIDAR

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - LIDAR imaging
LIDAR imaging can detect elevation changes & drainage issues

LIDAR is a precise remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.  LIDAR is commonly used to measure buildings and land masses with precision, and to develop an accurate 3D model of an area.

LIDAR sensors are very expensive, often costing $60,000 to $150,000.


Surveying Crops By Drone: The Process

Whether you use a fixed wing or a quad to survey your fields, the process of gathering useful data with a drone consists of 4 basic steps, as follows:

1. Plan Your Flight

pre-flight plan for quadcopter on DroneFly

Many of the latest agriculture drones come with flight planning software that lets you to draw a box around the field you want to survey (on a Google Earth map or similar), and a flight plan will be created for you automatically. Some even plan the camera shots for you, automatically.

Then, you upload the flight path into your drone and get ready to fly.

If you are using a home-built platform or an older ground control station, then you may need to manually code or set each turn point.

2. Fly & Shoot

best drones for data acquisition

With your flight plan loaded and drone armed, it’s time to start flying – and shooting images.

With a fully-integrated system like the PrecisionHawk Lancaster, this part is easy.

Basically, you just send the drone on its way and the system will automatically take images using the onboard camera and sensors as the drone executes its flight path. The drone will use GPS location to trigger each shot.

After finishing its run, the drone lands automatically (usually all goes well). Easy!

If you don’t use a completely integrated drone package, then one person will need to take the shots manually while a GPS autopilot or another pilot flies the aircraft.

If you are manually shooting your images, please bear these points in mind:

  • to capture high resolution data correctly for ag purposes, your images need to overlap with each other by at least 70%
  • shoot images based on GPS location, not time, to ensure you get the image overlap and the coverage needed

3. Process Images

The most challenging part of the agriculture drone surveying process is translating the hundreds of high-res images you just captured into information you can actually use. But don’t worry, it’s not that hard to do (or learn).

Most farm drone operators need to process hundreds of visual, thermal and multi-spectral images per flight, to identify changes in crop health over time or to spot anomalies.

All of these images need to be stitched together, converted into orthomosaic 2D images, processed and analyzed for you to get useful information from the flight.

Agriculture Drones Buyers Guide - multiple hi res images captured and ready for processing
Aerial drone images captured & ready for stitching

That’s a lot of data processing. And your home PC probably isn’t up to it.

This is where image processing software and services come in.

Popular Image Processing Software for Agriculture

Most agriculture drone operators use the following tools to turn aerial images into useful data. All of them use cloud-based processing to take the load off of you:

  • Pix4D: this popular & expensive image processing platform converts a series of aerial images into 2D orthomosaics, 3D point clouds and 3D mesh models. Pix4D can also calculate NDVIs, DVIs, SAVIs and custom indices as needed. To use Pix4D, you upload your images, let them process, then receive your reports and visuals typically within minutes to a few hours.  Pricing is $350 per month to rent or $8,700 to own.
  • AgEagle’s RAPID 
  • senseFly’s Postflight Terra 3D: based on Pix4D, this is senseFly’s software for converting aerial imagery into 2D orthomosaics, 3D models and differential indices. Terra 3D is provided free with all eBee drones. 
  • PrecisionMapper by PrecisionHawk: now called Data Mapper, this is a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data. Works with some, but not all, UAS platforms.
  • Trimble: designed for professional land surveyors, Trimble’s Photogrammetry Module office software to create detailed orthophotos, digital elevation models, point clouds, volume calculations and 3D models. Trimble’s general-purpose Inpho UASMaster Module can be used for advanced photogrammetric processing.
  • DataMapper by PrecisionHawk: a 100% cloud-based platform that supports image capture, differential processing and algorithmic analysis for many industries. Their unique Algorithm Marketplace lets you pick & apply specific algorithms to extract useful data such as NDVI, DVI, plant counts, scouting reports and more.
  • Correlator3D™ by SimActive:  advanced photogrammetric processing client software for use on high-end PCs. Several aerial survey firms such as AeroVironment use them. Performs aerial triangulation (AT) and produces dense digital surface models (DSM), digital terrain models (DTM), point clouds, orthomosaics and vectorized 3D models.
Extracting NDVI data from images
senseFly eBee Ag: extracting NDVI data from images

Some image processing platforms are proprietary to the flying hardware you’re using, and others are general purpose tools that anyone can use. General-purpose packages like Pix4D tend to have a bit of a learning curve.

Image Processing Services for Agriculture

If you don’t want to operate the software yourself, you can upload your data to a data processing service who will generate the reports for you.

4. Review & Take Action

Now that you’ve downloaded your reports and enhanced images, it’s time to see what’s up with your crops.

Perhaps you’ll see issues your scouting crew couldn’t see from the ground:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - NDVI images reveal issues you cant see from the road

Or, maybe you’ll find a problem with water retention after the latest storm:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - wet soil vs dry soil

Or, perhaps you’ll uncover new trouble spots in your corn fields that need a bit more nitrogen:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - DVI images of 40 acres of corn courtesy Agribotix
DVI images of 40 acres of corn (courtesy Agribotix)

Whatever you find, after you’ve reviewed the health of your crops you can input the data into one of several farm management systems like MyAgCentral to improve your overall view of the farm’s health and operational status.

And take action.


How Much Does It Cost To Survey My Farm?

Agris Co-op Ltd. in Chatham, Ontario is one of the first precision ag drone imaging service providers to enter the Canadian market.

Cost of ag drone surveying service
Measure.aero’s Cost Estimator tool

Using fixed-wing eBee and Swinglet drones, the firm shoots high-res NDVI images of corn fields in Ontario for a price of about $5 an acre. A single flyover covers 100 acres in 15 minutes, capturing about 300 images for a price of $500.

This compares to a cost of about $1,500-$2,000 for satellite or manned aircraft photography of 100 acres, or $15-20 per acre; and, both these older methods yield less resolution, can be hampered by cloud cover, and take more time to process the images.

On a single day, Agris can cover more than 1,000 acres using a single drone. Images are post-processed in about 2 days.

For another custom full-service cost estimate, check out the nifty Drone Service Cost Calculator on Measure.aero’s website.


Drone Insurance

For any commercial activity, it’s a good idea to insure yourself against property damage, liability and lawsuits.

All you need to do is search “drone lawsuit” to prove it’s worth getting insured.

At Interdrone 2015, Scott Smith of SkySmith shared this example of what it costs to unsure a $20,000 drone (about the cost of a PrecisionHawk Lancaster):

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - Insurance example
Drone insurance example (courtesy Scott Smith)

To learn how to find insurance for an agriculture operation, read our buying guide, Drone Insurance: Where To Buy It & How Much To Get.


Options and Upgrades

Without going into detail, you should be aware that some of your system’s components can be upgraded or replaced if you don’t like what you’re currently using.

The most common components upgraded include:

  • Ground Control Station
  • RC Controller
  • Sensors
  • Props

Avoid changing image processing tools and services that have been designed with your hardware in mind.  Something to think about when selecting your first drone.


Common Issues and Concerns

Flying a drone for agriculture involves many of the same issues facing consumer and other commercial drone operators. But there are a few gotchas unique to agriculture, especially when it comes to data and the EPA.

Privacy Laws

There’s a lot of noise in the media today about camera drones taking photos of people without their knowledge. Shotguns have been used to settle the score.

While this could happen on a farm, it’s unlikely.

Nevertheless, your neighbor’s home and fields are their property, and taking unauthorized images of them could violate local or state privacy laws. And state legislatures are on fire, when it comes to drones.

Nineteen US states (Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana,Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) have passed legislation. 6 other states have adopted resolutions.

In 2015 alone, 45 states have considered 156 bills related to drones.

So: make sure you check with a local lawyer to get the latest rules in your region.

Connectivity and Bandwidth

Millions of acres of farmland in the US have little to no online connectivity or cell coverage. If this includes some of your fields, then you need the ability to store captured images & data locally – in the drone or on a nearby ground station – and then upload them later on, when you get back to the office.

Systems such as AgOS by Agriworks operate under the assumption you may not have connectivity at all times.

Don’t choose a drone that requires a live connection to the internet to capture data; it just isn’t a good choice for agriculture.

Data Ownership

The image data generated by agriculture drones can be really useful for lots of people other than farmers.

The EPA, county officials, drone operators, land surveyors and land management officials can get a tremendous amount of value from your geotagged images – if they have access to them.

Some organizations can also do damage to a farm if they have access.

For this reason, ownership of data is a critical legal issue that needs to be dealt with upfront, via contract, whenever you:

  • hire someone to perform an aerial survey of your farm
  • process your images through a third party (software or service provider)
  • share or commingle your images with a third party

By default, the farmer/land owner should always retain full ownership of all data generated by drones flying over his/her property. Then, via contract, these rights can be granted to third parties on a need to know, exception basis.

Bottom line: you never want a third party to own your data.

FAA Regulation & Operator Certification

Flying drones for agriculture is always a commercial operation, according to the FAA.

By law, your drone operator must have FAA operator training and have their remote pilot certificate before they can operate a drone over your land.

If they are not properly certified to fly an unmanned aircraft, then you should not hire them nor let them operate a drone over your property – even if no money changes hands.

EPA Regulations

By law, the EPA has the right to access any and all data generated by drones flying over your property.

There’s nothing you can do about this. For this reason, data retention and storage policies are important to pay attention to.

Interference With Other Aircraft

Crop spraying and other manned aircraft may share the same airspace as an agriculture drone.

For this reason, it is important to file a flight plan with your local airport/FAA office before every drone flight.

Make sure your drone operators understand this, too.


Get Your Contracts Right

If you are a new agriculture surveyor or drone operator, then you need professional legal help when setting up your contracts to deal with the issues above (and more). DroneLaw.Pro offers operators contract templatestraining videos and a unique “Ops In A Box” business setup kit.

If you operate a farm and are interested in hiring a drone surveyor, then make sure you know what a good contract looks like


We’re Still In The First Season…

Little known fact: Japan has been using unmanned aerial drones for over a decade, in rice farming.

But in the US & Canada, agriculture drones are very new.

In fact, the first FAA exemption for a precision agriculture drone operator was only awarded in January of 2015.

And according to that operator, Empire Unmanned, only 5-10% of farms are using drones in their precision agriculture operation.


If you have any questions or comments about this buyer’s guide, please leave them below in the Disqus comments section.