UAVs After the Harvest: Flying Drones After the Growing Season

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Flying drones after the growing season is a great time to reexamine the possibilities of how added aerial intelligence can enhance the various aspects of your farming operation.

Oct 10, 2016

You’ve taken great strides in utilizing your UAS to ensure you have a successful crop from infancy to maturity.  You may have leveraged a specialized sensor to gather crop health information, or simply used your multi-rotor to scout your fields for potential problems or infestations.  Whatever the case may be, just because the harvest is in the elevator doesn’t mean that it’s time to mothball your multirotor.  Flying drones after the growing season is a great time to reexamine the possibilities of how added aerial intelligence can enhance the various aspects of your farming operation.

Let’s look at some use-cases

There are a variety of tasks well-suited for a fam-based remote pilot who’s looking at flying drones after the growing season; and more use-cases are seem to be popping up every day.  Powerful software and apps have the ability like never before to transform that “flying toy” into a powerful mapping tool.  DroneDeploy, DroneToMap, DataMapper, and MapsMadeEasy (to name a few), allow a landowner or manager to do more than just take static pictures of their land.  I’ve been utilizing DroneDeploy paired with a DJI Phantom 3 Professional for quite some time now, and I personally appreciate the versatility, ease of use, and product deliveries of the software.


In full disclosure, although I am certainly a satisfied DroneDeploy customer,  DroneDeploy isn’t the only solution capable of what I’m illustrating in this piece (it just happens to be what I’ve paid for :)).

Surface Modeling

One of the simplest things a grower can do with respect to flying drones after the growing season doesn’t involve growing anything at all. Once harvest is complete and post-season field prep is complete, you’re essentially left with a blank canvas.  Why not produce a map of your land in this state?  Terrain maps can be used to plan future work without having the crop cover distracting from and distorting your view of the surface. A byproduct of every flight within DroneDeploy is a surface model and 3D map.  Take it from a kid who spent hours on an earth mover during the summer:A surface model gives an indication of the overall slope drainage of your land; and can help when planning for terraces and waterways, or even drain tiles.  If you have the ability to incorporate RTK into the flight, those surface models can even be even more precise.  Volumetric calculation tools can also give a landowner a rough idea of how much cut or fill is needed if the plan is to  move soil out of waterways or fill gullies.  The surface model is also handy to pass along to anyone you’ve hired to apply fertilizer or chemicals as they can quickly assess the terrain of the location and plan accordingly.

Livestock Operations

Many farmers have livestock operations in addition to growing crops.  Flying drones after the growing season in the effort of animal husbandry enables a rancher to get a close up view cattle herds without having to drive through open range or rough terrain.  UAVs are also handy during calving times as you can quickly spot any cattle outlying from the herd.  Drones can be valuable for mapping your pastures as well.  Farmers can use NDVI to check the relative health of pastures, and use the information gleaned to help determine best options for grazing rotations.

Volumetric calculation tools can allow you to quickly assess your silage or feed stockpiles. Measurement flights should be flown at regular intervals to determine stockpile consumption rates and enhance forecasting. In the effort of stockpile management, we’ve even heard of folks using drones to fly feed bunks at feedlots to scare off “uninvited dinner guests” such as starlings.

Weed Control

There are many benefits to controlling weeds, but one of the most important reasons is moisture control.  The argument could be made that the key a successful dryland crop is controlling moisture loss through weed management.  The million dollar question is when to spray or cultivate, if at all?  Conventional till farmers risk losing moisture by tilling the land, and no-till farmers risk losing profit by applying costly chemicals. If no-till is your thing, timing is crucial in terms of chemical application both before and after planting.  We’ve talked to researchers that are looking to find the “sweet spot” in which weed pressure can be ignored or should be addressed to maximize yields and profits. That said, there’s no reason to wait for the research to be published when the tools are within reach to conduct your own ad-hoc trails.  There are many variables such as geography and crops type to consider; and UAVs can be crucial in determining the extent of weed pressure before you plant and if it’s worth addressing.  Being able to see the weeds via NDVI, or teasing them out of RGB imagery using algorithms such as “VARI” within DroneDeploy can prove invaluable.  Flying multiple years and comparing trend analysis can further clarify if your methods and thresholds are correct.

How are you flying this winter?

Are you looking at flying drones after the growing season is over? Will it be to monitor your cattle, get a new perspective of your ground, control weeds, or something entirely new and different? We’re all looking for those best use cases and would love to hear what you’ll be doing with your drone this winter!

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