Drone gives TMK Bakersville (and farmers) clearer picture of crop scouting

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Using a drone to scout crops is “just another piece of the puzzle” for making decisions on the farm, says Coshocton County farmer Greg Waters, who spent a recent morning watching this TMK Bakersville UAV fly his cornfields.
(Scroll down to watch a video of the TMK Bakersville drone crop scouting footage.)

NEWCOMERSTOWN, Ohio — The corn was about shoulder high and yellowing, not a good sign.

But the height of the corn made it difficult to see exactly how much of the 60 acres showed signs of nitrogen deficiency. Was it a big enough problem to merit a sidedress application of fertilizer, even if that meant beating down some of the corn in the process?

TMK Bakersville agronomists had the answer: Let’s use our drone to scout the fields from above to check exactly how much corn is yellowing.

Future is now

Interestingly, it was the “old generation” pushing the younger one that triggered the crop service and propane company’s foray into the world of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Don Myers, retired OSU Extension state agronomist who now consults part-time with TMK Bakersville, kept reading in farm and trade publications about UAVs’ use, and would pass along the articles to his staff counterparts, agronomists Melvin Lahmers and Jake Hillyer.

“He’s always been proactive on technology, and on the forefront of everything,” Lahmers said of Myers.

Lahmers, who was named the 2012 Ohio Certified Crop Adviser of the Year, said that push from the 80-year-old Myers influenced their decision to purchase the remote-controlled quad copter late last fall.

After tweaking and retrofitting the copter, and practicing flying, and tweaking some more, Hillyer has flown the drone over some of the eastcentral Ohio farm fields in the five counties TMK Bakersville services.

Huge benefit

“You can just see so much more,” Myers said of the drone’s crop-scouting ability. “You can’t stand at the edge of the field and see weed pressure or disease. When you get in out in the field, you can’t see what’s going on 7 feet beyond you.”

With the drone, Myers added, “you’re taking a closer view looking down, than you can see otherwise.”

“I think the potential is just unbelievable,” Lahmers added.

Learn more about the laws governing the use of UAVs on the farm at the Farm Science Review.

From scratch

TMK Bakersville ended up buying a basic SteadiDrone hobby quad copter through UAV America. The drone has been Jake Hillyer’s baby — from the research and the phone calls, to the video cameras, and the reconfiguring of the landing gear, and everything in between.

He added two video cameras, a Garmin Virb mounted underneath that records footage of the ground below, and a second camera atop the drone that isn’t recording, but shoots video of straight ahead, to give the operator a flight-path view of where the drone is flying. The camera on top is also synched to a set of first person view, or PFV, goggles that gives Hillyer, or anyone wearing the goggles, real-time footage.

It was agronomist Jake Hillyer’s job to research, buy, reconfigure and retrofit a hobby quadcopter to serve as a working drone for TMK Bakersville. Equipped with a Garmin Virb camera, the aerial vehicle can give the crop consultants a better view of a field’s conditions.
It was agronomist Jake Hillyer’s job to research, buy, reconfigure and retrofit a hobby quadcopter to serve as a working drone for TMK Bakersville. Equipped with a Garmin Virb camera, the aerial vehicle can give the crop consultants a better view of a field’s conditions.

The Garmin video is transmitted wirelessly back to Hillyer’s laptop, which is equipped with a special video receiver. The video is also tagged with the GPS coordinates, so each segment of the footage can be traced to a specific location in the field, as well as latitude and longitude, for accuracy.

The TMK Bakersville drone is outfitted to transmit location and video back to a computer. The video is tagged with the GPS flight path to give exact location information of problem areas identified through the aerial scouting.
The TMK Bakersville drone is outfitted to transmit location and video back to a computer. The video is tagged with the GPS flight path to give exact location information of problem areas identified through the aerial scouting.

Because of the lower camera’s size, they had to build new landing gear with higher clearance. And because of the additional camera weight, they had to change the configuration of the copter’s blades, widening the “X” for better balance. Along the way, they experimented with different propeller sizes and adjusted their pitch and length.

With every tweak, Hillyer would fly the copter over his family’s Tuscarawas County farm, note the problems, make adjustments, and test fly some more.

“Since there’s no program,” Hillyer said, “it’s kind of a trick to figure out heights and angles.”

The vehicle travels 10-15 mph at about 200 feet. You can fly it lower (Hillyer said he’s flown it at 80 feet), but the speed is slower, at 6-8 mph, which takes more battery power. Most flights are around 12 minutes.

Once it takes off, Hillyer switches it to the pre-programmed flight path (a serpentine pattern if he’s crop scouting), and the drone flies itself, returning to land where it started. On his laptop, Hillyer can monitor the drone’s GPS location signal, and can shift into manual mode at any time.

Management tool

TMK Bakersville invited me to see the drone in action in mid-August, as it did some scouting at Wen-Mar Farm, home of Wendell and Greg Waters in Coshocton County. The Waters wanted a close-up aerial perspective of production variations from pivot irrigation in their fields.

Lahmers, a licensed pilot, had already scouted the field from his plane, but the Waters wanted a little closer view than the aerial plane.

“It’s just another piece of the puzzle,” said Greg Waters. “You just have to utilize all the information you can get.”

Decision maker

Oh, and that early yellowing corn? The TMK Bakersville drone crew scouted the fields from the air to see the extent of the nitrogen deficiency. After the flight, in the 10 minutes that it took the agronomists and the farmer to drive from the field to the farm shop, Hillyer had downloaded the footage and powered up the laptop to show the video.

And within a few minutes, the farmer made his decision: The problem area wasn’t big enough to justify spraying.

Next on Myers’ radar? A “big drone” that could spray, too.

Even with the initial $180,000 price tag, “I haven’t given up on that,” Myers laughed.

(Video appears below photo)

As a drone flies over his cornfields, Coshocton County farmer Wendell Waters looks through a set of first-person goggles, which let him see footage from a second camera mounted atop the TMK Bakersville drone. Basically, that camera gives you the perspective of the vehicle’s flight path straight ahead, while a second video camera mounted underneath films the cropground below.
As a drone flies over his cornfields, Coshocton County farmer Wendell Waters looks through a set of first-person goggles, which let him see footage from a second camera mounted atop the TMK Bakersville drone. Basically, that camera gives you the perspective of the vehicle’s flight path straight ahead, while a second video camera mounted underneath films the cropground below.


By Susan Crowell

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