Aerial Scouting Earns Its Wings

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Drone pioneer and farmer Robert Blair helps run an aerial scouting company. (Photo courtesy Robert Blair)

Working from his more than century-old Three Canyon Farms outside Kendrick, Idaho, Robert Blair is a pioneer instrumental in launching the nation's agricultural unmanned aircraft scouting industry. In fact, he claims that in 2006 he was the first farmer in the U.S. flying a drone for scouting purposes.

Taking note of a release announcing a $15 million investment in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) company that now employs him, I thought it was a good time to catch up.

Blair is vice president for agricultural systems at Measure, a drone services company based in Washington D.C. He is also a full-time, fourth-generation farmer, growing dryland wheat on fields above Idaho's Clearwater River basin. In addition to agriculture, Measure provides vertical infrastructure services (cell towers inspections, for example), surveys of disaster areas, aerial property inspections, and Measure does work in the energy industry (in and around hazardous electrical power infrastructure, for one). The $15 million Series B (second round) investment comes from Cognizant, a Teaneck, New Jersey, provider of information technology.

Cognizant's investment gives Measure a new push as it grows with the fast-expanding, drone-based aerial scouting industry, Blair says. From last summer, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved much-simplified guidelines for drone pilots to the end of 2016, the agency issued nearly 23,000 drone pilot certifications.

Measure offers its own UAS services, but also is the first licensed and insured drone operator to sell franchise UAS scouting opportunities, Blair says. Franchisees buy a territory with business contacts and offer standardized scouting services developed and overseen by Measure. Blair says Measure has business clients from Florida to Washington state and has completed aerial scouting flights over corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, onions, lettuce, sweet corn, string beans, oranges (orchards), sugarcane, and other crops.

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"The drone industry has come a long way since I started in 2006 and things have been progressing rapidly in the last couple of years," Blair says. "[New FAA regulations] have created certainty that there is a commercial drone industry in the U.S. and the industry is seeing investment into companies like Measure. It truly is exciting times."

Measure works to give its clients the ability to capture actionable data, Blair says. In other words, it is the ability to collect aerial images 200-400 feet above a field with a multi-spectral camera, stitch the images together, and then interpret the images in enough time to allow clients to act on the results. This is an expensive scouting capability. A capable drone carrying a multi-spectral camera with color photo capabilities may cost upwards of $40,000.

This is where companies such as Measure fly in. Using senseFly's fixed-wing eBee Agricultural Drone, Measure's pilots can cover up to 1,500 acres per day, taking images in the green, red, red edge and near-infrared spectrums, plus RGB (red, green, blue) color imagery. Pilots then interpret the images and provide actionable results in 48 hours. The eBee has a wingspan of 43.3 inches, weighs 2.42 pound, flies between 25 and 68 mph, and can stay airborne for 55 minutes on a single charge from its lithium-ion battery.

Measure deploys several camera systems. Most commonly, the eBee flies with the Sequoia camera system (www.micasense.com/sequoia). Measure also has access to the MicaSense Red Edge (www.micasense.com/rededge) and uses a model from SlantRange (www.slantrange.com/sensors).

The eBee-mounted Sequoia camera collects images in different spectrums that can be used to run analytics such as plant height, canopy cover, crop germination and ENDVI. ENDVI, or Enhanced Normalized Difference Vegetation Index measures green vegetation over a range of conditions. All the processing and analytics are computerized.

Blair offers an example where a farmer might purchase from Measure three over flights in season. The first flight would generate RGB imagery to show general plant conditions, concentrations of weeds and stand establishment. A second, midseason flight would look at plant health, plant height, weeds and nutrient sufficiency. A third flight later in the season might be more of a general scouting flight. "It's a kind of, is there anything more I can do at the end of the season flight," Blair explains. If this farmer were also variably applying irrigation water for example, Measure would also be able to provide evidence of water application efficiency.

Measure's website, www.measure.aero offers a cost estimate calculator to price its drone flights. The calculator example shows flight cost of $4 per acre but actual pricing is determined by acres, a daily rate or by project basis.

"With crop prices depressed, now is the time to really look at precision ag management and data from drones," Blair says. "The example we use in our calculator is a $4-per-acre flight. At today's prices, roughly a bushel of wheat. The [analytical] information and [potential input] savings per acre more than pays for a flight."

The difficulty in capturing and interpreting images rises with the numbers of questions being asked. It's pretty easy to see gaps in emergence. But if the question is about plant health, "the [imaging and interpreting] challenges start ticking upward," Blair says. For example, corn is not always corn, he says. "Each variety reflects light just a bit differently. So also does winter and spring wheat, hard red or soft white winter, or barley. You can see how challenging it might be from a software analytics standpoint of creating one solution." Crop images are calibrated, "but when you are looking at disease signatures it comes down to the analytics in the software."

Blair sees nothing but clear air for the drone industry.

"I look at my grandfather and I'm trying to answer the same questions he did 70 years ago. How do we better our soil and better our productivity? Drones are a transformative technology," Blair says. "We've had that in agriculture throughout history. John Deere's plow. McCormick's reaper. Eli Whitney's cotton gin. They all transformed agriculture."

Blair expects drones will one day be viewed as one more tool that transformed agriculture.

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Jim Patrico