An Interview with Scott Gregory of Ag One Solutions

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AgFlyers talks to Scott Gregory to discover how drones are being integrated with established field technology in California’s Sacramento Valley.

Jun 6, 2016

Scott Gregory is the Remote Sensing Program Manager and a GIS Analyst for Ag One Solutions, which specializes in positioning systems, survey, and grading design for agriculture. We’re curious to find out how Scott’s blending unmanned systems with traditional solutions!

So, your background is remote sensing and GIS – How does that skill set start someone down the path to the field of drone technology?

Remote sensing and GIS provide the fundamentals to make an already useful tool – aerial imagery – many orders of magnitude more powerful.  Drone technology for aerial imaging goes hand in hand with GIS, as it allow the user to conduct high-level analyses of their imagery that increases farming efficiency and can increase yields.  Drone technology is great because it offers the user the ability to easily produce their own maps that can be exported as shapefiles.  Using Esri GIS software, one can work with those shapefiles to statistically and spatially analyze various features of the landscape such as soil type, areas of plant stress, or locations of frost damage that show up in aerial imagery, which are then expressed separately as different map layers.  The real analytical power comes when those various layers of information are overlaid on each other using GIS software.  Overlay additional maps such as nutrient data from your soil and foliar sampling lab results, and one can quickly derive very powerful information that can be used to diagnose problems and explore solutions.

Scott Gregory

NDVI detection of Downy Mildew in onions. Image courtesy Scott Gregory.

Do you see drones as a deep integration touchpoint for Ag One Solutions, or more of a value-added thing?

Drones offer an added value to our clients.  As an agriculture service company, Ag One Solutions offers numerous services and products to our clients, most of which are ground-based, such as soil EC mapping, topo mapping, soil moisture monitoring, implement sales, weather station installation, and orchard layout services.  I am a firm believer that drones are a very useful tool for solving many challenges, but they are not the only tool in the box.  Many of our clients are extremely successful in producing very high yields without having ever collected aerial imagery, and they feel like the time investment to use a drone is not productive for their operation.  Other clients are in full understanding of how to use aerial imaging right away, while still others want to start collecting imagery now for the sake of documentation, knowing that they will want to refer to it in the future, and that they will figure out what to do with the imagery in time as analytical software continues to improve and they learn how to use the data.

What applications is Ag One Solutions currently focused on with respect to unmanned aerial systems?

Because we are located in an area with a high diversity of crop types (e.g., rice, almonds, walnuts, strawberries, pistachios, peaches, olives, pecans, wine and table grapes, alfalfa, wheat, barley, onions, mint, potatoes, tomatoes, sunflower, safflower, horseradish just to name a few…) we have a lot of applications.  The main applications relate to nutrient analysis, scouting for crop diseases and insect damage, irrigation design and management, and stand counts.  We also work closely with a large farm supply company in our area that conducts research to test new applications for ag chemical companies.  That client has gained significant benefit using aerial video and stitched imagery to support his research and present a comprehensive overview of the results to his clients.  Some of my orchard clients have seen a lot of benefit from hiring me to collect imagery over parcels of new orchard property they are preparing to purchase so as to better plan how many trees need to be removed and how many nursery trees they need to purchase for replacement.

What aircraft are you currently flying as part of your operation? Any new technologies in sensors or platforms you have on your “wish list”?

I currently operate a DJI Matrice and an AgEagle; both using DroneDeploy for autonomous flight and map generation.  When conducting flights at some of our client’s farms in the Klamath Basin around 4,200 feet in elevation, I use the DJI propellers designed for higher altitude operations, which greatly increases the flight efficiency of my Matrice.  My current “wish list” contains the FLIR/DJI Zenmuse XT thermal infrared camera, a SlantRange SL2p sensor, and the MicaSense Sequoia sensor.

You sometimes hear folks saying that things are done a little differently in California. 🙂 Is this the case for drone flight as well? Are there different considerations for the crops y’all are growing out West as opposed to the methods growers may be using in the central United States?

I have never professionally operated drones in the Midwest, although my parents are both from Wisconsin and I have spent a lot of time out there observing the lay of the land.  So, I can only make a comparison based on the bit I know about the size of many corn and soy fields out yonder in the Midwest.  That being said, we have thousands of acres of rice fields and orchards where I am located in the northern Sacramento Valley.  Because blocks of corn and soy in the Midwest are so large, it makes sense that fixed-wing drones that survey the greatest amount of acreage per flight would be desirable.  However, rice fields are flooded with water during all but the final weeks of the growing season, and there is usually very little open area around them to land a fixed-wing aircraft.  Orchards are equally inhospitable to fixed-wing drones, since there is typically very little open area for landing, and the trees obscure one’s view of the operational airspace.  These conditions are ideal for VTOL aircraft.  For safety reasons, I fly orchards in small blocks that allow me to keep my aircraft in sight at all times, and I then process all the imagery into a single map.  The process is more time consuming than flying areas such as row crops that provide an open view of the sky.  

Scott Gregory

Using NIR imagery to forecast rice Harvest. Image courtesy Scott Gregory.

Farming out in California isn’t all unique though.  Like in the Midwest, many farmers, particularly in far northern California, use pivot irrigation for their alfalfa, mint, onion, and potato crops.  A VTOL aircraft with a thermal IR camera and color camera promises to be useful for surveying for blocked lines.

We appreciate Scott sharing his insight with us. Know someone we should be interviewing? It’s time to speak up! Have your own questions for Scott? Go ahead and ask him in the forums (link below). Thanks again, Scott!

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