Drones could have specific uses on farms, but widespread applications still unknown

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

While personal drone technology has been on the market for years, experts say its specific uses in agriculture is becoming more clear and could eventually lead to innovative new applications for the local farmer.

As part of the Ag Day 2024 event held this past weekend at the Chapple Rec Centre by the Rainy River Federation of Agriculture, Eric Busch of LeafBit Agricultural Imaging was invited as a keynote speaker. Addressing the crowd assembled for his discussion, Busch explained his experience working with drone technology in the agricultural sector, highlighting the things that drones can be useful for, that which they cannot help with, and how the technology might be put to use for small-scale farmers in the future.

Busch noted that hone of the greatest strengths of drone usage in agriculture as it currently stands is the fact that drones can be hooked up to specialized cameras that can quickly distill a large volume of data from a farmer’s field. However, that data is so voluminous as to be almost useless to a local farmer without additional processing.

“Digital technology and sensors produce mostly useless data,” Busch explained.

“The stuff that comes off of my drone is immense. I have spreadsheets and spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data. Most of it’s useless. So the trick is, we have to narrow down, we have to kick out the stuff that’s not useful, to get to the interesting, useful stuff. And we have to get that in there with the regular data that’s collected on the ground by research technicians.”

Busch’s example of the usefulness of the drone technology available, as well as the cases in which it is better than the average human, was to explain how he would use his drone to photograph specific plots of land that have varying processes applied to them in order to determine the effects of a specific treatment compared to others. He said the drone’s multi-spectrum camera is excellent at picking out subtle colour variations that aren’t as easily visible to the human eye, if at all. That colour data can then be indexed and processed to reveal if a certain field and treatment are producing greener plants, which usually indicate healthy, leafy plants, or if a field might contain more yellow or brown hues, which would indicate ill or dying plants, all at an incredibly specific scale.

“Some indexes help you make a clear separation between leaf area and soil,” Busch said.

“So if you want to know like how fast that crop is growing, especially for weed control in the spring, how fast is that plant covering the ground and basically closing up the canopy? That is an index we can use to measure that. There’s a lot of really cool imagery, it’s really impressive to look at the pictures, but at the end of the day, the numbers are really what what matter. We have to take the statistics off of those and compare them and see what what they’re telling us.

Busch noted that data still needs the knowledge and expertise of farmers to provide real value, and that multiple sets of data should be collected over the growing season to provide more context and cohesion. Just because the camera can tell that a field might have more green plants at a specific point in time, there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between the green-ness of a plant to its yield. Busch said he has been working mostly with companies who are testing out new products, either for fertilizers, weed-control, or other variables, as the comparative data between fields that are similar save for the time or amount of product applied can be more valuable for those companies.

But a drone can still be a valuable tool for farmers looking for data on their crops because, unlike humans, computers don’t get tired and make mistakes as the day wears on.

“Humans are great, humans can still do and notice way more things about plants than computers can, but there’s certain things that computers can do better,” Busch said.

“The humans walking along the plot are always looking at at the side of the crop. And anybody who went to agricultural school knows that they cannot go and count every plant or measure the size of every leaf, they have to look at it, and make a guess they have to,and those guesses change over time, we find, depending on, you know, if you have [multiple] technicians in the field, they’re all looking at that plot a little bit differently. And also in agriculture we work long hours, so you get to the end of a 10-12 hour day, our body’s getting tired, our brain’s making different decisions, we might make a different assessment, when we’re tired at hour 12, than we do at hour one. So what what digital data does is it’s it’s completely objective, it’s just a pixel measurement. So it’s not hungry, it doesn’t get tired. It just is what it is. And it doesn’t really care what the results are. Because it’s a machine.”

An area that seems ripe for drone usage is in the application of different substances to a crop, as opposed to taking a large sprayer through a field. While Busch said the likelihood of a drone being used to cover an entire field might not be realistic or economically viable, what farmers could do in the future is use one drone to scan their field and then, using the data collected from the scan, highlight specific areas that need fertilizer or herbicide or another application, and program a sprayer drone to specifically target those areas. This technique would then save the farmer money by not having to spray the entire crop, and could be ecologically safer as well by cutting down on the amount of chemical in the field.

Busch said despite the volatility in the digital agriculture sector, he does see a future for drone usage on smaller farms as more and more people figure out how the technology can be applied to farms and be both useful and economically sound. Drone scans could be used to help identify low and high spots on a field to better direct tile drainage installation, or other purposes that have yet to be identified, or even just focused to the point of usability and, more importantly, ease of use for farmers.

“What we’re looking for here, I think, as consumers of tech is for somebody to come along and say, ‘this needs to give me value,’” Busch said.

“As soon as I press the ON button, I don’t have to get the full benefit of it right away, but it has to deliver value right away. It should not take me spending three years of cussing and fiddling around and crashing things for me to finally figure out how to use it. So it is reasonable to ask that of the industry to say, ‘what value can you deliver for me, tomorrow or next week, without me having to learn things the hard way?’