Cropland weed management is a global challenge. Weed pressure in the field decreases crop yield as a result of resource competition. To combat weeds and protect their crops, farmers are increasingly adopting herbicides in farm management. However, overuse of herbicides not only increases farmers’ operational costs but also undermines the health of the ecosystem. Many countries have set a goal to reduce agricultural chemical usage. The European Green Deal aims to decrease agricultural chemical usage by 50% by the year 2030. Drone and Aerial Software Developer DJI recently proved that precision agriculture and drone technology might help to achieve these goals by implementing multispectral scouting and precise spraying with drones.
Cirsium arvense is a widespread weed across many continents, including Europe. It competes with crop plants for soil resources and releases chemical toxins poisonous to other plants, causing severe yield loss. It can spread from seeds and from modified, underground stems, making land tilling and plowing ineffective in controlling Cirsium arvense spread. Herbicide spraying is the most commonly used management method. Traditionally, in autumn or spring, before or after seeding, farmers use a tractor to spray the entire field, 300L/ha, of an herbicide solution containing 5L of glyphosate.
Noticing that Cirsium arvense often presents in only some portions of the field rather than the entire field, DJI partner, PlantaDrone, from Hungary, decided to adopt a spot spraying solution using drones to try to decrease chemical usage.
First, they flew a DJI P4 Multispectral drone over an 18-hectare cereal field to collect multispectral images and then used DJI Terra to process and generate an NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) map from these images. Given that this was before seeding and no other crop plants were present in the field, NDVI effectively located Cirsium arvense patches in the field (the green patches shown in the picture below).
NDVI map of cropland field with Cirsium arvense distribution
Based on the NDVI map, they generated a prescription map. Three different dosages of glyphosate solution were sprayed, depending on the infection density of the weed spots (weak, moderate, and strong infection). An 8L/ha solution was sprayed on the weakly infected areas (0≤0.1), 10L/ha on the moderately infected areas (0.1≥0.2) (E. SZALMA (2021). Areas with NDVI≤0 were not sprayed. In every 10L of the solution, there is 3.5L of glyphosate (35% concentration).
Prescription map and flight routes
This prescription mission was then sent from Terra to the DJI Agras drone for spot spraying.
Spot spraying mission with Agras drone
The drone used 83L of the solution, containing 29L of glyphosate. Compared with a blanket application with a tractor, which would use a total of 90L, 67.78% of chemicals were saved, meaning a savings of 14.57 EUR per hectare for farmers (E. SZALMA (2021).
Total Glyphosate Usage
Total Saving Per Hectare
Blanket application with tractor
Spot spraying with drone
After successfully helping farmers to reduce glyphosate usage and chemical costs through spot spraying, Elemér Szalma, Engineer from PlantaDrone, believes that drone technology will be significant for the EU’s Green Deal. “If we want to achieve the agricultural chemical decrease goals of the EU’s Green Deal by the year 2030, our best chances are zone/spot spraying/spreading, and Variable Rate Application.”
FlyDragon Aviation co ltd developed an AI drone for oil palm tree spot spraying.
With the advancement of technology, drones have evolved and are being used in various fields, including agriculture. Many companies are coming up with drone solutions to help farmers in their daily activities. For example, if you have a large farm and want to spray crops, it is much more effective to use drones for this purpose. Drones can also be used for accurate seeds, which no other technology can do so easily. This blog will look at the benefits of drones in agriculture.
Table of Contents
When were Drones First Used in Agriculture?
The history of drones in agriculture is longer than we can think. Can you imagine that about 100 years ago, this type of drone was first introduced in the USA? At that time, USDA and the US Army used drone technology in Dayton, Ohio.
After that, agricultural drone technology development was envious. Again in 1939, Royal New Zealand Air Force applied drones to spray seeds and mix fertilizer. From then, drone solutions started their way to the present time, and now the benefits drones are giving to the farmers are a tremendous help.
The future of drones in the most significant industry like farming of the world will bring a revolution. Now commercial drone usage has started, and drone construction also increases.
Benefits of Drones in Agriculture
Different types of drones come into the market. Among them, agricultural drones are unique for many reasons. It has several benefits. They are saving money, reducing labor, increasing production, using fewer chemicals and pesticides, maintaining proper input for land, and many more.
All of them are not strong enough and not worth mentioning here. That’s why I find some unique but most important benefits of agricultural drones. Let’s have a look at them.
Drones for Agriculture Mapping
Agriculture mapping is also known as surveying the crop field. In the traditional methods, a person had to inspect all the land by himself, but after the evolution of drone software, it can take hundreds and thousands of photos and map your entire field within a concise time.
These aerial vehicles can take photos from the top to help you know the actual condition of crop health of your entire field in a very short time. Another benefit of drone technology mapping is measuring the input ingredients ratio.
Some agriculture drone software is so advanced in its sensor and GPS that it can make its flight pattern to ensure proper mapping. Sometimes this unmanned aircraft can provide real-time plant health reports to you. It is one of the key benefits of drone technology to increase agricultural productivity.
Drones for Precision Agriculture
Another major benefit that drones give to the agriculture industry is precision farming. This term is becoming increasingly popular day by day and becoming more in discussion while ‘Drones In Agriculture’ is the topic. But most of us don’t know what precision agriculture is. Precision agriculture is also known as precision farming.
It means a way of crop management or crop monitoring where crop inputs like water and fertilizer give on time and increase farm productivity. Besides these chemical applications, the precision application is also done by drones. It will help the farmer to grow healthy plants in his field and increase crop production.
Drone applications have some features that can manage autonomous flight, flight time, flight parameters, multispectral sensors, take accurate, real-time info, and many more to help precision agriculture.
In the agriculture industry, there are so many things to do in the field. All these are not possible by man to do physical visits without the help of others. But now, it is hard to find the perfect person to inspect croplands.
In this case, the development of agricultural drone types has helped a lot in crop surveillance. The modern drone software features have improved drone navigation, flight time, and many more things.These custom-made drone Software make drone capabilities more surveillance friendly.
Now drones can do many things like checking the health of plants, crop damage, crop health monitoring, crop diseases, plant conditions, and many more. These features make farm management decisions easy for the farmer. The drone will help you observe all your land very closely with its strong sensor and camera, and you will take steps based on the situation.
This robotic device can also work with cattle behavior patterns. By doing this, It is also going to make the cattle surveillance job easy and bring a revolution in this sector too.
Crop Condition Report Making
Another major benefit of agricultural drones is their report-making capability. The updated drones have a mighty sensor in them. These sensors can scan the land and also the plant health to bring insightful info to the farmer.
This info can make a complete report to give complete knowledge of plant physiology. After a certain period, this drone type will make accurate, nearly real-time info about all essential things for the irrigation system.
These unmanned aircraft can do image processing work like professional image processing software to arrange the crop condition report into a more easy-to-read format or readable format. The aerial surveying by these devices makes a visual prototype report to agricultural producers.
These things reduce the human workforce and manual labor in the agricultural field. By reducing manual labor, it is giving some economic benefits to agricultural producers.
Drones for Seed Planting
The outdated planting techniques of seed was a result of production inefficiencies. But new-generation technologies like drones make agriculture smart and bring environmental benefits to us. The flight management software makes the drone flight time and pattern accurate. As a result, it becomes very easy to plant seeds of our future crops and get more benefits.
The way a drone can plant seeds is almost impossible for a human to do. An accurate seed plantation is much more important than any other thing in farming. Nowadays, agricultural consumption has increased by a few times, but the production is not so high. For this reason, we need to find a human alternative for farms, and drones can be that alternative.
Drones in Agriculture Facts
The facts about the agricultural drones mean some different but unique information about it. These facts related to agricultural drones can change your present concept about it. Here I present some of the points for you to make your knowledge update.
The price of drones in agriculture is not as high as we think. Though they are very much productive and helping technology in this sector, and the market for agriculture drones is increasing day by day, the costs of drones decrease by a huge amount.
To some people, drones in agriculture look like a revolution, but some think it is a burden. They have a very narrow concept about this technology. But actually, the person core farm processes will think of it as a blessing after using.
You will not believe that agricultural drones can help you in the crop collection process when they ripen. However, this is not true for all types of crops. But it is accurate, and in the future, it will be more improved.
The best use of drones in Agriculture is spraying. Drones for agriculture spraying are thought to be the best feature of this device. It goes under a careful preparation process before doing actual spray.
Types of Drones Used in Agriculture
There are several drones on the market. But all of them are not for irrigation. Some drones are unique in specific sectors. Agricultural drones are different from others. We think that we can categorize drones into three categories based on their features and mastery in various farming sections.
they are mainly rotary drones. They have more than two copters. This feature makes it more expert in navigation systems. You can easily navigate this drone in any direction, better mapping your land and taking many images of your land. These images make a visual prototype for the farmer. It also can survey the land after any natural disaster. This type of drone takes less time and space to fly.
They are fixed-winged drones. They have only one propeller to take off from the land and make a visit for almost 20 minutes. They are more battery-friendly drones. They take time and space to take off like an airplane runway. With the long wings, they can spray a wide area of your land and can lift heavy weights. You can spray the exact amounts of chemicals needed for your crop.
Drones with powerful scanners and cameras are very much needed for the best agricultural production. These types of drones can scan your land to give you in-depth knowledge about plant health. The cameras have been compelling to make field topography. All these things help proper application of chemicals field health checks.
Precision agriculture helped to reduce the cost of a ripening agent by 20% and achieve a 93% accuracy rate in sugarcane production forecast.
Trinoo is a precision agriculture company specializing in drone spraying for agriculture. It has been active since 2018, backed up by 2 years of research in the use of drones for spraying products in sugarcane cultivation. The company is located in the largest sugarcane production area in Colombia – the department of Valle del Cauca. This area has 14 sugarcane mills, where on average 240,000 hectares of sugarcane are harvested per year.
Reducing the sugarcane ripening agents and forecasting the crop production
One of the most important sugar mills in Colombia was looking to improve their efficiency in sugarcane ripening and to have a more accurate forecast of the production of tons of sugarcane per hectare of their fields. They decided to work together with Trinoo and in defining the scope of the project, the two companies established a research protocol that included:
the technology to be used for image capture and subsequent processing
the time when images should be taken according to crop development
the sugarcane varieties to be analyzed, amongst other factors
The project’s goal was to reduce the use of ripening agents and improve the production of tons of sugarcane per hectare forecast. This would reduce production costs per hectare and improve the cash flow of the mill by providing more accurate field production forecasts up to 120 days before harvest.
Parrot Bluegrass drone for data capture DJI Agras MG-1P drone for spraying Parrot Sequoia camera
Parrot Bluegrass drone used for data capture (left) and DJI Agras MG-1P drone used for spraying
Applying the ripening agent with aerial spraying drones and variable rate maps
For the maturation process, a ripening agent is applied from the air on the crop leaves. It is induced to concentrate higher levels of sucrose in its stalk, which increases the sugar production per ton of sugarcane harvested per hectare. This work has traditionally been carried out with a uniform dose without taking into account that each lot, given the soil conditions, rainfall regime, and agronomic management presents different levels of development.
Additionally, the standard methodology used so far is the collection of samples in the field that are then analyzed in the laboratory, a process that generates variations due to the difficulty of having a truly representative sample of the entire lot.
Orthomosaic of sugarcane generated in PIX4Dfields
The maturation process, once combined with precision agriculture can be done with a variable rate, spraying more or less product with a spraying drone, according to the development stage of the crop. Trinoo proposed capturing images with a drone and spectral cameras, processing the images, and creating spraying drone variable rate maps in PIX4Dfields to apply the ripening agent.
Variable-rate application map of sugarcane created in PIX4Dfields
Developing a sugarcane production forecasting algorithm
For this project, Trinoo developed an algorithm to calculate the tons of sugarcane per hectare from vegetation indices and other variables recommended by Trinoo’s client’s sugar mill harvesting team. In the field, the average size of the plots to be surveyed is 15 hectares, which generates challenges due to latency effects and disconnection of the drone in the farthest points from where the pilot was.
For the development of the forecasting algorithm, the starting point was the vegetation indices generated in PIX4Dfields. Then the patterning process had to be carried out, which is the identification of the spectral signature of each sugarcane variety and its relationship with the tons of sugarcane per hectare (biomass production), including variables such as age and variety of sugarcane being analyzed.
NDVI index map used as a starting point to develop a sugarcane forecasting algorithm
“That would mean for our customers – approximately USD 200,000 per year of savings. For the case of the entire sector made up of the 14 sugarcane mills located in Valle del Cauca, it could result in savings of USD 800,000 to USD one million per year”, points out Felipe Barney Arango, Innovation coordinator at Trinoo.
Trinoo team applying the ripening agent with a spraying drone according to the locations identified on the variable rate application map
Achieving 93% accuracy rate in forecasting the sugarcane production
In the forecast of tons of cane per hectare, Trinoo achieved a 93% accuracy rate. “This information can improve the cash flow projection of the companies, the factory planning, and the sales projection of each sugar mill by being able to anticipate with up to 120 days the number of tons of sugarcane that will arrive from the field. This ultimately generates substantial savings in the planning of labor demand and amount of product to be marketed”, concludes Felipe.
Advantages of PIX4Dfields
For this research Trinoo processed 30000 images with PIX4Dfields, distributed in 26 projects. They found the following software advantages:
High usability of the software with very intuitive functions that facilitate the work of the image processing technician.
Low demand of computing capacity, allowing to run the software on a computer with only 4 GB RAM at an acceptable speed of image processing.
Easy export of reports, results, images, and polygons, facilitating the integration of the work with other processes.
The high variety of vegetative indices allowing multiple combinations of analysis.
With the world supply at an all-time high and commodity prices at an all-time low as a result of increasing demands in food production and consumption, the modern farming industry is at a crossroads. There is a greater need than ever before for farmers and agronomists across the globe to improve resource management in response to tightening budgets, while the “farm to fork” movement has seen rising pressure for enhanced product traceability, as consumers become more interested in the origin of the goods they purchase and how they were grown.
Furthermore, climate change continues to create new layers of complexity for the agriculture industry in protecting the security of the supply chain. Rapidly evolving environmental conditions further exacerbate these challenges, and the latest figures show that the overall loss to agriculture across Europe from climate change could be as high as 16% by 2050. Indeed, optimizing sustainability credentials to minimize the impact on the health and well-being of the public and the planet will remain a priority, particularly as enhanced sustainability measures could also provide additional economic benefits by enabling agriculture professionals to focus their resources and efforts more effectively.
A landmark report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that sustainable land management could be key to reversing the impact of climate change on land degradation – a significant consequence of human and agricultural activity and extreme weather conditions, in which the quality of land and soil is polluted or degraded. The report claims that this could provide “cost-effective, immediate and long-term benefits”. With this in mind, it is crucial that farms change how they operate to not only mitigate the effects of climate change, but to protect themselves against economic loss.
The Rise of Precision Agriculture
To balance feeding the planet with reducing global emissions, ambitious plans have been put in place. The U.K.’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU), for example, has outlined its goal of making British agriculture carbon neutral by 2040, with the introduction of a range of measures to improve land management, increase farming efficiencies, and boost the wider bioeconomy. Although there is no single answer to the problem, the NFU has advocated working “smarter” to cut direct pollution from farming, by delivering the same value with fewer emissions.
Precision agriculture practices, which can help farmers make better informed decisions, have evolved significantly over recent years, with the global market now estimated to reach $43.4 billion by 2025. While drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have not yet made it into the mainstream agriculture space, they are playing an increasingly important role in precision farming, helping agriculture professionals lead the way with sustainable farming practices, while also protecting and increasing profitability.
The use of global positioning system (GPS) technology, together with geographic information system (GIS) tools, form a large part of these precision agriculture practices allowing fine-scale monitoring and mapping of yield and crop parameter data within fields. These provide more intense and efficient cultivation methods, which can help farmers adjust fertilizer prescriptions or identify crop diseases before they become widespread. With more data at their fingertips, farmers can make decisions based on economic and environmental factors – for example, by optimizing fertilizer treatment and applying only the right amount at the right time, significant cost and environmental savings can be made.
The Adoption of Drones
The use of drones in the agriculture industry is steadily growing as part of an effective approach to sustainable agricultural management that allows agronomists, agricultural engineers, and farmers to help streamline their operations, using robust data analytics to gain effective insights into their crops. Crop monitoring, for example, is made easier by using drone data to accurately plan and make ongoing improvements, such as the use of ditches and evolving fertilizer applications. Products can be accurately traced from farm to fork using GPS locations for every point in the journey, rather than more traditional time and labor-intensive data collection.
UAVs are particularly useful for the careful monitoring of large areas of farmland, considering factors such as slope and elevation, for example, to identify the most suitable seeding prescriptions. The technology has also proven useful in gaining an extensive overview of plant emergence and population, as more accurate data can help with replanting decisions, as well as thinning and pruning activity and the improvement of crop models.
Crucially, the high-resolution nature of drone data can be used to assess the fertility of crops, allowing agricultural professionals to more accurately apply fertilizer, reduce wastage, and plan – and troubleshoot – irrigation systems. The technology can also be particularly effective following natural disasters, such as a flood, to help farmers to assess damage across terrains that may not be readily accessible on foot.
Taking Drones Further
The potential for UAVs in the improvement of sustainable agriculture is huge. Already the agriculture drone market is predicted to be worth US$32.4 billion – an indication that the industry is beginning to recognize the benefits over more traditional methods, such as ground mapping.
Given the extensive terrain that requires surveying, drones offer increased efficiency, allowing users to capture high-resolution imagery more quickly than alternative methods. Particularly in these volatile market conditions, estimating annual yield can help guide decision-making and manage expectations. In addition, UAVs are now seen as a safer option for mapping difficult areas, such as uneven or expansive fields, that can be hazardous for operators – particularly compared to terrestrial techniques, which must be carried out on-foot.
Where satellites and manned aircrafts have traditionally been used to monitor agriculture, UAVs are quickly becoming recognized as a more accurate and cost-effective replacement. Studies have shown that drone imagery provides a higher rate of accuracy and resolution – even on cloudy days. While using traditional terrestrial approaches to collect data in challenging weather conditions could potentially delay projects for days, accurate crop health assessments can be made throughout the year using UAVs.
The cameras on satellites and manned aircrafts have also historically been insufficient to map fields clearly, making it impossible to gain an exact picture of plants. In contrast, UAV technology provides users with an accurate picture of the different plant parts – even allowing the early identification of pests and diseases. Historically, processing these high-quality images took longer than ground mapping and satellite methods, however thanks to new software solutions, the processing time has been reduced to only a few minutes. This means it can be carried out while still in the field, allowing evidence-based decisions to be made immediately and data to be directly inputted into precision farming equipment, considerably speeding up the process.
Once farmers have decided to employ drones in agricultural management, there are several factors to consider before investment. Rotary drones and fixed-wing drones are two types of UAVs that each bring distinct advantages. A rotary system, such as a quadcopter or multicopter, is ideal for mapping and inspecting small areas, thanks to its ability to take high resolution imagery at closer range, using mm per pixel. The take-off and landing area can also be very small, which suits more urban areas. In contrast, a fixed-wing drone is often more suitable and beneficial for agricultural applications, where mapped areas are usually large and take-off and landing space is not limited. Its endurance and high cruising speed allows a greater area of land to be mapped up to 2.6x faster, with an object resolution of cm/inch per pixel, and users also benefit from its ability to withstand high wind resistance – an important factor when mapping large areas of open land – as well as reduced labor costs.
In addition to the choice of device, agricultural professionals must also consider the benefits of using a third party to assist with flying the drones, or whether it is more beneficial to train a team in-house. Companies are increasingly opting to use drones in-house, due to the long-term cost benefits and potential return-on-investment. Advances in technology now means that UAVs can also be seamlessly integrated with existing farm management information systems (FMIS), to reduce time spent planning and in the field. Helping to streamline workflows further, partnerships between hardware and software manufacturers can also support agricultural professionals with the processing and analysis following data collection – all in one system.
This allows agricultural professionals to fly the drone and process the images using accompanying software, before exporting the data directly to an application map for use on farming equipment, such as sprayers. These measures enable precision application and ensure less wastage of materials, which can help save costs. Linking the farmer, drone maker, software, ag service provider, and agronomist together, this level of seamless integration enables a complete drone to tractor workflow – leading the way in intelligent agriculture and optimizing farm management methods.
It is also crucial for operators to keep up to date with regulations, such as controlled airspaces around airports and individuals’ privacy. Legislation is continuously evolving and is not currently harmonized across the world. Since regulations vary substantially between regions, having the right team in place can help drone operators in the agriculture industry choose a compliant model, ensure they have the correct certification and fly according to the latest guidance and safety and regulatory standards.
With rising emissions from agriculture an increasing problem, changes in farming need to be made to help mitigate climate change and protect against future environmental impact. Agricultural mapping with drones has become more accessible, allowing operators to gain crucial insights into the health of crops and plan accordingly. Not only does the technology have a positive environmental impact, but it can also result in significant cost savings for farmers and agricultural professionals in the long-term. Drones have become an efficient way to quickly and easily map difficult terrain – particularly compared to more traditional methods of mapping, such as manned aircrafts and satellites. This is helping agriculture become a data-driven industry. T
The future for drone technology in improving sustainability is promising. The next step will be the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically analyze the resulting data. Not only would this encourage more efficient operations but enabling more frequent health assessments would also help improve sustainability throughout the industry.
Case Study: Reducing Herbicide Use in Brazil
Drones have been used to help reduce herbicide use by 52% in a Brazilian soybean field. With a flight time of up to 90 minutes, the senseFly eBee X allows up to 500 hectares (1,200 acres) to be mapped, providing high quality images of fields. Accurate images of the landscape were processed and analyzed using Pix 4D Fields to automatically detect areas with weed infestation. The team quickly and efficiently gained access to the results and classification of weed infestation level within hours, with detailed accounts of weed thresholds. The results generated by the fleet of eBee X fixed-wing drones using Pix 4D Fields processing technology helped to generate herbicide application maps that saved, on average, 52% of herbicides for farmers in the 2018/19 season in Brazil.
Thermal imaging or thermography is a technique in which thermographic cameras are used for detecting the radiation present in the range of infrared rays. Radiation that has a wavelength ranging between nine and fourteen micrometers is identified by the thermographic cameras.
Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles are aircraft that are not operated by onboard pilots and are controlled by automatic devices or pilots on the ground. They are used for a number of purposes and missions.
Combining thermal imaging and drones results in an extraordinary and extremely useful technique known as thermal imaging on drones.
What is meant by Thermal Imaging on Drones?
Thermal imaging on drones refers to the incorporation of thermographic cameras inside drones. Thermographic cameras are installed inside the unmanned aircraft and these aircraft are then used for different tasks.
These drones are then launched and sent to the area that needs to be examined using thermography. The minute thermographic cameras in the drones come in action; they begin analyzing the area under study. The thermograms produced by these cameras are recorded and can be viewed by the person controlling the drone. He can easily identify the object he is interested in by seeing the radiation emitted by that body. As the temperature of a certain object rises, it emits more radiation. By analyzing the radiations and the color produced by them, the controller is able to locate the entity he seeks.
What are the Benefits of Thermal Imaging on Drones?
Thermographic cameras in drones have several benefits. Firstly, this technique helps in examining inaccessible areas. Lots of areas cannot be accessed by people or other objects. On the other hand, drones can easily enter areas of minute sizes because of their small size. This makes it quite convenient for different people or companies to get thermal images of complicated areas.
Secondly, before the creation of this technique, sky workers holding thermographic equipment or thermographic cameras on tripod stands were used to examine an area thermographically. Both these methods were laborious as well as inconvenient. As drones can easily become airborne and can stay in the air for as long as forty hours, this technique is extremely effective.
Thirdly, thermal imaging on drones helps in saving time. You can use UAVs at any time of the day you want and can get results very quickly. This saves a lot of time that can otherwise be utilized for completing other important tasks related to a mission.
Fourthly, this technique helps in saving funds as well. You don’t need to hire people or install a thermographic camera at several points of high altitude for examining an area. With the help of a thermographic camera in a single drone, you can survey and get thermographic images of an area from a variety of different points quite easily. This makes this technique cost-effective and extremely easy.
As thermal imaging on drones offers all these benefits, it is becoming quite common. Individuals, multinationals, government agencies, and military organizations are using this method for carrying out numerous important projects.
HE BENEFITS OF USING UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS (DRONES) FOR MUNICIPAL PROJECTS
The rise in popularity of drones has opened the door to a variety of new opportunities for municipalities. Here are 6 ways that drone use can add value to your construction projects and save your team time and money.
1. Efficiency. Using a drone to assist in surveying can save your team a lot of time, especially when gathering data for large areas and/or areas with tough terrain. Survey projects that normally take days or even weeks can be completed in hours with the use of a drone, leading us nicely to benefit number 2…
2. Cost effective. Because drone surveying can be completed with such efficiency, municipalities can significantly save on cost. A project that saves time is a budget-friendly project!
3. Collect large amounts of data in a short amount of time. Drones allow your project team to collect millions of points, elevations, colors, and photos. This data can dramatically improve the accuracy and quality of important project deliverables like surveys, aerial images, and construction reports.
4. Adds value to your project. The large quantity of project data provided by drone images enables the project team to make difficult decisions quickly and accurately. For example, high quality drone photos provide municipalities with survey-grade, geo-referenced photos at a higher resolution than most online map databases. These images provide incredible project value for very little cost.
5. Survey unsafe or inaccessible areas. Because drones are unmanned, they allow project teams to gather data for areas that may have previously been difficult or even impossible for them to access with traditional surveying methods, like quarries, cliffs, and rugged terrain.
6. Capture data in real-time. Drones allow your project team to track site construction and improvements in real-time, making ongoing site assessment easy and efficient. For example, if there’s a major rain event, drone footage will help your project team make the best decisions on how to focus their time and give them the tools they need to take the necessary measures to deal with pooling and runoff. Again, this information can save your team time, energy, and money.
This past January, at a clay mine near Golden, Colorado, Alena Iskanderova made a startling discovery: The tracks of an ancient relative of the crocodile — once preserved for some 100 million years — had been largely erased by erosion.
In the 11 years since paleontologist Martin Lockley, an associate curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and professor emeritus at the university, first documented the tracksite, the fossilized footprints left by the animal had lost much of their depth — from roughly 7 to 12 millimeters down to 3 to 4 millimeters, Iskanderova said.
That the effects of the elements could visibly diminish the tracks in such a short time points not only to their fragility in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic threats, Iskanderova said, but the importance of photogrammetry as a means of preserving the geologic record.
WHAT IS PHOTOGRAMMETRY?
Photogrammetry is the science of reconstructing objects and environments in the physical world through photographs. The technique involves stitching together large collections of overlapping photographs to create topographical maps, meshes, and lifelike 2D and 3D digital models. Software tools help create these digital assets using pixel data from aerial photographs taken by drones or close-range photographs with handheld cameras. From surveying construction sites and flood zones to exploring fossil sites and assessing crop health, the technique has a variety of applications.
“Sometimes tracks are the only presence of animals in any paleoenvironment. So [photogrammetry] is very important for us to know what kind of animals were there,” she said. “The tracks also show us their behavior. Sometimes we can tell, for example, that there was a group of dinosaurs migrating from one point to another.”
Iskanderova is a close-range photogrammetrist with a specialization in paleontology. She uses a Canon 5D Mark II camera with a 24-mm lens to do much of her work, which has included documentation of ornithischian (“bird-hipped”) dinosaur tracks, small invertebrate burrows and the first reported Mesozoic track of a small heron-like bird called Ignotornis mcconnelli. Most of her work occurs in the South Platte formation — a sandstone-rich rock bed in the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range.
“Sometimes tracks are the only presence of animals in any paleoenvironment. So [photogrammetry] is very important for us to know what kind of animals were there.”
After snapping hundreds of overlapping pictures, Iskanderova uses Agisoft Metashape Pro 1.7 to patch them together into a single 3D image. By aligning pixels in the photos, the software renders something called a point cloud — a three-dimensional constellation of colored dots that reveal the contours of a surface. These points are then layered with a textured mesh to create lifelike visualizations, including depth maps showing the geolocated contours of a surface.
“This is why photogrammetry should be taken as a best practice for fossils and tracks studies,” Iskanderova wrote. “[Many scholarly] papers give measurements as numbers but don’t document how the measurements are made in connection to the start and end points. Each scientist, or a fieldwork assistant, will take the measurements differently. With photogrammetry, you can record not only the length, width and depth [of tracks] but also the start and end points.”
Photogrammetry is nothing new. The centuries-old method of reconstructing measurements is rooted in principles of perspective and projective geometry practiced by artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, and formalized into a science by German mathematicians Rudolf Sturm and Guido Hauck in the late 19th century. Yet the field is rapidly evolving through innovations in software and aerial photography.
Today, photogrammetry is used in commercial applications as diverse as public safety, construction, civil engineering, automotive manufacturing, agriculture and military reconnaissance. And a growing number of use cases has been a boon for the software companies that provide 3D modeling and post-production tools.
Analyses from Data Bridge Market Research predict the photogrammetry software market will see a compound annual growth rate of more than 13 percent between 2021 to 2028, with photogrammetry software expected to reach a market value of $2.56 billion by 2028.
“I think the big revolution has been with drones,” Tristan Randall, a strategic project executive at the architectural software company Autodesk, said. “In the context of a construction project, for example, where you want to monitor your site conditions, you can purchase drones that cost a couple thousand dollars. So capturing the photogrammetric data has become much, much easier.”
Photogrammetry does not require highly sophisticated cameras, Randall told me. It can be performed using digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, video reels, satellite photos or even images captured with an iPhone — virtually any digital camera that can store multiple images.
“I think the big revolution has been with drones … capturing the photogrammetric data has become much, much easier.”
But the low-cost availability of drones has opened a once largely terrestrial application to a range of new airborne possibilities — from creating large-scale maps to assess crop health or plan for emergency relief operations to producing lifelike 3D models of buildings, roadways and flood zones.
A photogrammetrist can buy a serviceable drone for as little as $800, said Christopher Kabat, the owner and founder of the drone consultancy ProAerial Media. Once programmed, the drone can capture hundreds of photos of a large-scale real-world environment, like a subdivision or city district, in hours.
Prior to the flight, the pilot selects the flight path and the number of photos the camera will take, based on their desired output resolution. Outfitted, typically, with a 1- to 2-inch diameter camera on a rotating gimbal, the drone passes back and forth over the landscape taking pictures — hundreds of them — for later processing.
“It’s literally taking every image and taking all the pixels in each image and looking for another image with at least three matching pixels,” Kabat said. “And it’s going to do that for every single photo that you have.”
Depending on the goals of a project, teams can use drone-based photogrammetry to create photorealistic orthomosaic maps corrected for the curvature of the Earth, capture valuable volumetric data — like the amount of soil a building team needs to extract to dig a foundation — or generate interior models for virtual home tours on real estate sites like Zillow. Aerial photogrammetry, though, tends to work best for large-scale projects, not fine architectural details, which are often represented with laser scanning.
The Google Earth project to map cities in 3D actually used both technologies, Randall told me, capturing large regions with photogrammetry and applying signature building features with manually scanned data.
“The key thing to remember is that [a point cloud] is a very, very accurate representation of the physical features of a site,” Randall said. “We call it ‘mowing the lawn,’ because you’re basically moving the camera in lines that overlap. And then you use those photos in, say, an engine like Autodesk ReCap, to stitch them together.”
Photogrammetry Has Dozens of Use Cases. But Construction Is Where Most of the Excitement Lies.
Over the past decade, aerial photogrammetry has radically transformed the construction industry. Instead of hiring a survey team to spend weeks photographing a site with GPS-synced tripods, developers can send a drone — like DJI’s Phantom 4 RTK or Autel’s Evo 2 RTK — into the air to capture site conditions in hours, often at a much lower cost, said Ryan Sweeney, a sales manager at the Denver office of the photogrammetry company Pix4D.
Drones are good at capturing high-resolution photographs, in part because they fly so low — a maximum of 400 feet above the ground (or higher, if within range of a structure), compared to at least 500 feet above the ground for a human-piloted plane, as stipulated by Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Drones can also capture a site from multiple vantages and reach places that might otherwise be dangerous for humans to be — like hazardous chemical sites.
At a typical construction site, about 500 images captured by a drone in a 30-minute flight can be processed on a personal desktop computer in roughly two hours, Sweeney said. Flight height, camera quality and the level of photo overlap all affect the quality of the point cloud and final outputs. A 75 percent horizontal and vertical overlap is a good target for a quality data set.
“Implementing photogrammetry gives you the ability to almost have your eyes on location. You can monitor the progress [of a construction site] visually, very simply.”
In addition to knitting the photos together, software modeling tools like Recap, Pix4D, or all-in-one aerial photogrammetry platforms like 3DR and DroneDeploy, align geotagged pixels against cartesian coordinates ground sampled locally or imported from networked GPS data. The reconstructed image files are, thus, correlated one-to-one with their real-world locations — what some refer to as digital twins. These outputs can be represented as 3D building models, topographical maps, depth maps, contour line drawings and 2D orthomosaics.
Because these renderings are accurate to within inches, architects and engineers can use them to update working “as-built” models so they reflect on-the-ground conditions.
If a construction crew moves a planned sidewalk four inches to the west to avoid a root system, the design team doesn’t need to manually update their renderings, Kabat said. They can import updated point cloud data to virtual environments to correct such discrepancies on the fly.
Meanwhile, construction managers can use the 3D models to keep tabs on large-scale development projects, while working remotely.
“Implementing photogrammetry gives you the ability to almost have your eyes on location,” Kabat said. “You can monitor the progress [of a construction site] visually, very simply.”
Laser Scanning vs. Photogrammetry
Laser scanners can produce high-resolution 3D models and maps, often at a higher resolution than what can be achieved using photogrammetry. Yet they tend to be expensive — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, Randall told me — and they must be moved into position by human operators to “see” their targets.
“You can imagine a construction site 20 miles from the city,” Randall said. “A pilot has to fly all the way from the airport and then go back. Even inside a building, you have to move the scanning instrument all over the site to capture different viewpoints.”
But drone photogrammetry has its limitations too. Most U.S. airports, Kabat said, are surrounded by LAANC (low altitude authorization and notification capability) grids that require formal FAA airspace authorization. A flight can be ground sampled at a given height — say, 137 feet — but fall within a restricted zone that limits the flight ceiling to 100 feet. If not coordinated in advance, that can throw a wrench in a mapping project.
The FAA’s Part 107 guidelines already require all small commercial drone operators to pass a knowledge test and be registered, but a new rule that went into effect in April requires most drones flying in U.S. airspace to be equipped with remote ID. According to the agency’s website, this “helps the FAA, law enforcement and other federal agencies find the control station when a drone appears to be flying in an unsafe manner or where it is not allowed to fly.”
“If you were flying in North Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin — anywhere there’s much denser vegetation, photogrammetry will never be able to interpret the ground data because it can’t penetrate past the canopy roof of the trees.”
Randall told me it likely implies they have the ability to disable drones that pose a potential threat.
Drones — more specifically, their cameras — also have trouble seeing through foliage. Kabat’s company operates in the desert landscape of southern Nevada and areas of Arizona and Utah, where photogrammetry works well.
“But if you were flying in North Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin — anywhere there’s much denser vegetation, photogrammetry will never be able to interpret the ground data because it can’t penetrate past the canopy roof of the trees,” he said.
Building edges can also be problematic. Unlike laser scanners, which measure distances as a function of the time it takes light beams to reflect off a target and return to their source, photogrammetry uses pixel matching to approximate distance.
“So depending on what’s in those pixels, you may run into challenges. If you’re shooting from directly above a building, you’re not going to be able to represent that vertical edge with as much accuracy,” Kabat said.
Documenting and Preserving Fragile Environments
But the technology is quickly getting more advanced and adaptable. Newly developed aircrafts scheduled to arrive on the market soon, such as the DJI Mavic Pro 3, are expected to have swappable payloads, Kabat told me, meaning they will let users exchange a standard camera for a zooming camera, thermal imaging camera or LiDAR (light detection and ranging) camera.
The promise of modular camera options is exciting to practitioners like Kabat, but the market for newer technologies will likely take some time to ramp up.
“Most people still don’t even know what photogrammetry is,” Kabat said. “That’s the biggest challenge: just making people aware that you can use photogrammetry to solve problems.”
“It’s not something new,” Iskanderova added. “But in certain fields, like, for example, paleontology, it’s a relatively new and growing field. And, right now, I see many, many students studying photogrammetry and doing projects. Many old-school professors are also interested in photogrammetry.”
“Most people still don’t even know what photogrammetry is. That’s the biggest challenge: just making people aware that you can use photogrammetry to solve problems.”
And it remains an active field for hobbyists. During his off-hours, Kabat traces the history of remote stretches of the American southwest with drones and handheld cameras, capturing artifacts in ghost towns and abandoned mines near Las Vegas, and Native American petroglyphs he finds along the Old Spanish National Historic Trail running from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles.
Recently, he engaged the nonprofit Friends of Pando about the prospect of mapping the Pando, a clonal colony of a single aspen in south-central Utah that looks like a cluster of individual trees, but is connected by a genetically identical root system that spans 106 acres. The threatened tree, among the oldest in the world, has been deemed the heaviest living organism.
“If you were to Google, ‘largest tree,’ it’s still going to be General Sherman, the sequoia tree in California,” Kabat said. “But as far as the largest organism, it’s the Pando. What they’re ultimately looking to do is provide visitors to their website the ability to walk through the aspen forest, virtually, as it changes seasons.”
Though the scale of the project is different, it’s not so far removed from what Iskanderova is doing at a more granular level with dinosaur tracks — reconstructing the fragile outlines of an environment with photogrammetry to document its existence and, hopefully, preserve it for posterity.
“With tracks or any fossils, it’s pretty much detective work,” she said. “You just go in and slowly find more details, making a story behind the remains.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—better known as drones—have been used commercially since the early 1980s. Today, however, practical applications for drones are expanding faster than ever in a variety of industries, thanks to robust investments and the relaxing of some regulations governing their use. Responding to the rapidly evolving technology, companies are creating new business and operating models for UAVs.
The total addressable value of drone-powered solutions in all applicable industries is significant—more than $127 billion, according to a recent PwC analysis. Among the most promising areas is agriculture, where drones offer the potential for addressing several major challenges. With the world’s population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, experts expect agricultural consumption to increase by nearly 70 percent over the same time period. In addition, extreme weather events are on the rise, creating additional obstacles to productivity.
Agricultural producers must embrace revolutionary strategies for producing food, increasing productivity, and making sustainability a priority. Drones are part of the solution, along with closer collaboration between governments, technology leaders, and industry.
Six Options for Agricultural Drones
Drone technology will give the agriculture industry a high-technology makeover, with planning and strategy based on real-time data gathering and processing. PwC estimates the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture at $32.4 billion. Following are six ways aerial and ground-based drones will be used throughout the crop cycle:
1. Soil and field analysis: Drones can be instrumental at the start of the crop cycle. They produce precise 3-D maps for early soil analysis, useful in planning seed planting patterns. After planting, drone-driven soil analysis provides data for irrigation and nitrogen-level management.
2. Planting: Startups have created drone-planting systems that achieve an uptake rate of 75 percent and decrease planting costs by 85 percent. These systems shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing the plant all the nutrients necessary to sustain life.
3. Crop spraying: Distance-measuring equipment—ultrasonic echoing and lasers such as those used in the light-detection and ranging, or LiDAR, method—enables a drone to adjust altitude as the topography and geography vary, and thus avoid collisions. Consequently, drones can scan the ground and spray the correct amount of liquid, modulating distance from the ground and spraying in real time for even coverage. The result: increased efficiency with a reduction of in the amount of chemicals penetrating into groundwater. In fact, experts estimate that aerial spraying can be completed up to five times faster with drones than with traditional machinery.
4. Crop monitoring: Vast fields and low efficiency in crop monitoring together create farming’s largest obstacle. Monitoring challenges are exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable weather conditions, which drive risk and field maintenance costs. Previously, satellite imagery offered the most advanced form of monitoring. But there were drawbacks. Images had to be ordered in advance, could be taken only once a day, and were imprecise. Further, services were extremely costly and the images’ quality typically suffered on certain days. Today, time-series animations can show the precise development of a crop and reveal production inefficiencies, enabling better crop management.
5. Irrigation: Drones with hyperspectral, multispectral, or thermal sensors can identify which parts of a field are dry or need improvements. Additionally, once the crop is growing, drones allow the calculation of the vegetation index, which describes the relative density and health of the crop, and show the heat signature, the amount of energy or heat the crop emits.
6. Health assessment: It’s essential to assess crop health and spot bacterial or fungal infections on trees. By scanning a crop using both visible and near-infrared light, drone-carried devices can identify which plants reflect different amounts of green light and NIR light. This information can produce multispectral images that track changes in plants and indicate their health. A speedy response can save an entire orchard. In addition, as soon as a sickness is discovered, farmers can apply and monitor remedies more precisely. These two possibilities increase a plant’s ability to overcome disease. And in the case of crop failure, the farmer will be able to document losses more efficiently for insurance claims.
Drones get a bad rap. Yes, they’ve enabled some next-level Big Brother surveillance and yes, they’re employed to conduct absolutely terrifying bombing campaigns. But just like a troubled, maligned starlet, everyone really wants to see them change for the better.
Here are the 11 ways unmanned aerial vehicles can and should be used to spread good. Keep reading if you care about pizza and/or saving all the animals.
When warzones or crowds make it too difficult or dangerous to get the full picture, drones are a huge help, offering access to stories that an on-the-ground reporter wouldn’t be capable of capturing. And there’s no question they’ve become one of the most powerful tools for newsrooms.
Make agriculture more efficient
Like a protective parent, most farmers are all-consumed with the status of their crops’ health. Traditionally, that means surveying the growing fields with piloted aircraft or satellites, which can get expensive, fast. Having special agricultural drones outfitted to fly low and stream photos/videos, collect soil and water samples, and perhaps even serve as precision crop-dusters could be a game-changer when it comes to high-value crops.
Transport medical supplies to hard-to-reach locales
Around the world right now, over 1 billion people live without access to proper roads, which means over 1 billion people are potentially too remote to receive emergency aid. With the help of upstart drone companies like Matternet, that will all change. Its goal is to develop a network of reliable and easy-to-operate UAVs for organizations like Doctors Without Borders and other aid agencies to deliver urgent supplies in minutes, rather than days or weeks.
Put out wildfires
It’s no surprise that fighting a raging forest fire is both incredibly dangerous and seriously complicated. Flames flare up unexpectedly, conditions change rapidly, and communication to people on the ground gets mucked up in thick clouds of smoke. That’s where the drones come in, collecting and sending info on wind conditions up close in real time. Down the road, they may even help snuff flames out themselves with robotic precision.
Provide fast medical help
As rapid as a normal 911 response is, there are plenty of medical emergencies that must be dealt with during the 10 minutes it takes an ambulance to arrive. Enter the Ambulance Drone, a recently unveiled concept designed to zoom to the GPS coordinates of an emergency call with a load of EMS-standard supplies, including a defibrillator. It’s also equipped with a microphone and speakers so a medical professional on the other end can provide simple instructions to revive or stabilize a victim.
Bridge-building is a notoriously fraught and dangerous undertaking, requiring tons of manpower and money. That’s why engineers are designing ways to offload the hassle to teams of drones, which have already proven successful in “weaving” mini pedestrian suspension bridges.
We all know how destructive drones can be, but thanks to some ambitious Earth-loving engineers drones are also becoming a hugely restorative force, helping to re-forest some of the 15.3 billion trees destroyed each year.
Help protect endangered species and habitats
Keeping tabs on endangered species and environments has always been an immensely crucial and difficult gig for biologists and researchers in the field, but it could get a lot easier with help from an army of low-cost, camera-equipped drones. By accessing treetops and other hard-to-reach areas without disturbing precious natural habitats, they’ll get a rare peek at the day-to-day goings on, like a bionic Jane Goodall. They’re also useful to track movements of hunters in places where poaching is a problem.
GoPros have made it easier than ever to capture kickass POV footage, but imagine how much more epic those wild and crazy stunts (and fireworks!) would look from the unique angle of a drone following every move? That’s exactly what the AirDog does. It’s an auto-stabilizing quadcopter with a camera mount designed to auto-track the movements of whoever’s wearing its tracker wristband.
Over the past few years, the use of UAVs/UAS/Drones has increased significantly. Much of this usage has been for the better, some has been for the worse. Many “hobbyist” drone pilots began to enter the market illegally and performed work against FAA-mandated certification. To legally operate a drone for commercial applications, the pilot must pass FAA certification tests that are in place to maintain both safety in the skies and on the ground. To the uninitiated, this may seem like the difference of using a gypsy cab instead of a duly licensed taxi, but it isn’t. The FAA takes its role in burgeoning drone use very seriously, and those who get caught without the proper certifications are subject to some hefty fines and possibly even jail time.
But through its maturation in industry, drone technology has found a definitive and growing place on construction project sites. Construction companies are now adjusting the way they seek to accomplish tasks based on this new technology. Construction projects are complicated, time-consuming and resource-intensive endeavors that typically involve lots of legwork, stamina and attention to detail. The use of drone technology can help minimize the legwork – accelerating schedule times and increasing safety on site.
The following are just a few of the uses for drones on the modern construction site:
Drones can quickly survey a job site and efficiently build maps. Instead of using larger human resources, heavy machinery and expensive surveying tools that produce complex data, drones can compile the data quickly and accurately, allowing the firm to cut the time and money it takes in half while providing greater accuracy.
Drones in construction have made surveying much easier by simplifying data collection, allowing the owner or manager the ability to focus their energies on putting collected data to use instead of figuring out how to get it. The drones can transmit data quickly to a live feed and SD data storage instantaneously. This makes the task of creating accurate maps and providing valuable data to numerous companies much easier. Information you acquire can be uploaded to a server where it can be accessed by individuals all over the globe who you allow authorization.
Project sites may not always be easily accessible to your clients. They may just be too busy to stop by, or they may be halfway around the world and site visits get cost prohibitive. In this case, drones can relay a large amount of information in one, neat package. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a flyover aerial or data-laden, interactive walk-through is worth what amount to the Library of Congress?
Job Site Monitoring
For project managers who routinely shuffle between multiple job sites, putting a drone in the air to monitor work progress, safety standards, incoming material inventory, etc. can save a lot of time, energy and money. The main responsibility of a project manager is to ensure the workers on their job site remain continuously productive. In any project, it is natural for there to be times of high and low energy, but a drone can help pinpoint chokepoints in your production schedule. It can provide you with a video log in case any equipment on site turns up missing.
Commercial building management relies on yearly inspections to monitor wear and tear of their structures. Traditional inspection tactics can include precarious climbs up to the roof or other parts of the structure using scaffolding or a harness. The time saving that is realized when utilizing a drone for inspection has really transformed the construction industry. Whether it is for a building, bridge or tunnel, drones have significantly simplified the inspection process and thus had a direct impact on both schedule and budget.
Better Safety Records
Drones in construction can do a great job of hovering over a location that is too dangerous for a worker to access and can save lives by monitoring workplace conditions in areas that are very hard to reach. In manufacturing plants, drones can help with reconnaissance, sending images of the conditions that can be expected before a worker is dispatched.
Plant reliability and maintenance is another area of safety code that can benefit from drone use. With drones, it is possible to send back images to the engineering and maintenance teams in order to identify the cause of a malfunction or breakdown immediately.
In the past when managers were concerned about safety issues, they would walk around sometimes very large plants hoping to get a glimpse of what the issues were. And while getting a human pair of eyes and ears on the floor is always appreciated, it may not be the best method to efficiently identify safety issues. But with the use of a drone and monitoring device, a safety manager can see what is happening in real time and can make dramatic improvements instantly.
Maintaining Schedules & Budgets
By identifying the parts of the project that are going off-track, having the ability to prevent time-lost accidents or causalities and rigorously monitoring your job sites, a construction manager will be much better prepared to remove any additions to project schedules or costs. Many construction managers will tell you that maintaining real-time control over multiple, multi-faceted projects can be one of their greatest challenges. The more information you have at your fingertips can mean more control you have over your project ultimately. And if something does go wrong on your site (and every project will have something that goes wrong on site), the real-time information that a drone provides will allow you to correct the problem quickly – minimizing losses in both time and money.
And in a nutshell, that is what drones do best on construction sites; they minimize losses while maximizing efficiencies. UAVs have proven themselves in the construction industry as valuable tools in the project manager’s toolbox. And yes, I will drone on about it.