To use the words July and Alabama in the same sentence automatically infers heat and humidity. So it was one late morning this month we stood, sweating, on the edge of a soybean field outside Madison, Alabama, the sun unmercifully high in a still sky, the ever-present tick of cicadas in the background.
Before us a white, Quantix drone sat on its tail running through an automated systems check. Flaps waggled back and forth, a stack of eraser-sized lights flashed green and the five-pound drone rose as four propellers pulled the craft straight up for 150 feet. There, it leveled out into horizontal flight and began to hunt.
Running a predetermined pattern at an altitude of 360 feet, the Quantix scanned the greenery below. Its two, high-resolution, 18 mega-pixel cameras gathered true color and multispectral imagery of the soybean plants -- both cameras sniffing out hints of plant stress. The detail is amazing. Images taken by the Quantix's RGB (true color) camera give farmer-photo interpreters detail down to 1 inch, basically to individual plants.
AeroVironment, of Monrovia, California, manufactures Quantix. The company produced the first personal drones three decades ago and is a critical supplier of drone systems to the U.S. Department of Defense. If you keep up on your defense news, you may have heard about AeroVironment's Switchblade. It is a backpackable surveillance and strike system that gives warfighters a view of what's around them and a non-line-of-sight precision strike capability. Boom.
The Quantix system is for agriculture. Growers see agronomic issues as they develop from Quantix scans. Are the plants getting enough water? Is there nitrogen leaching? Disease, weed and pest problems are vastly easier to see from above than through the windshield of a pickup. Quantix's analytics package gives the farmer-pilot the ability to zero-in on geo-referenced areas of interest. Enough imagery, over time, gives producers confidence in understanding yield -- bushels gained and indications of bushels lost, even as they are being lost.
"The biggest challenge we have is not the data itself," said Stuart Sanderson, whose beans were maturing under the Quantix flight pattern. "But it is managing, analyzing and reacting to data with real time feedback. Can you address the anomalies you see in the field?"
Sanderson believes he can. There are opportunities even mid-season to make management adjustments. "We can make changes in irrigation, reduce water where N has leached from over applying water," he said. "We get a better view of the field [with a drone] than driving 60 miles per hour down the road. In essence, we can increase bushels, but also prevent yield loss."
The Quantix is a sophisticated management tool with $16,500 price tag. It is no toy. "It takes the emotions, the bias out of making crop management decisions," said Matt Strein, director of business development for AeroVironment. As crop scouting becomes more efficient, the decision-making chain should become more effective, he said.
The Quantix flies on wings spanning 3.2 feet. A push prop generates a top-end forward speed of 40 mph. A lithium battery turns the drone's direct drive, brushless motor for 45 minutes flying time. Quantix covers about 10 acres per minutes, each pass overlapping the last by 60% to 70% to create a high-resolution image of the whole field. The overlap is for precision. "[The Quantix] takes thousands of photos and makes it look like one to create that high resolution image of the whole field," Strein said.
AeroVironment said in a release that Quantix's imagery and analytics help farmers "assess the effectiveness of their growing processes, improve their scouting efficiency, and learn from changes in historical data to make improvements year-over-year."
There are two productive features that stood out to me.
First, Quantix's vertical launch and landing are fully automated. "It's very simple," said Strein. "You hit 'add a field,' name it, touch the screen to define the boundary and hit save. When defining the boundary you will see a aerial view of your field, like on Google Maps." If Quantix loses contact with the operator, it automatically returns to the launch location. I saw that feature demonstrated. It stuck a landing, unaided by human intervention within 10 feet of where it took off.
Second, Quantix is actionable. In other words, the craft puts useful information into the hands of growers upon landing. The Quick-Look feature delivers composite true color and Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) maps as soon as the drone lands. The feature allows the farmer-pilot to act almost in real time.
More in-depth analytics -- analytics that take several hours to generate -- are produced by AeroVironment's cloud-based decision system, the Decision Support System (AV DSS). The AV DSS platform offers advanced image processing—analytics and historical reporting that, as AeroVironment describes it "analyze[s] crop behavior across time for seasonal trend analysis, down to the individual plant detail." That means images from the most recent flights can be analyzed in context with imagery collected in earlier flights. In total, imagery from a season's worth of flights produce a rich crops library with layers of images in true color, NDVI, GNDVI (Green Normalized Difference Vegetative Index), with examinations of canopy cover and an anomalies layer -- all from the same view. Canopy coverage indicates plant health. The anomaly layer indicates plants that are performing better or worse than others.
A Quantix drone and a one-year subscription to the AV DSS package, with the ability to upload all the acreage needed for advanced data analysis, has an MSRP of $16,500. Annual renewal of the AV DSS is $3,000 after the initial year.
The package includes an automated Quantix drone with integrated true color and multispectral cameras, controller tablet with flight software and Quick-Look maps to conduct in-field assessments, battery and charger, plus a one-year subscription to AV DSS image processing, advanced analytics, comparative analysis and historical reporting. Users can also download the AV DSS Survey Mobile App that allows them to collect and upload geo-referenced images and notes automatically to AV DSS.
For more information go to: www.avdroneanalytics.com
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Dan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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