Precision Agriculture’s next step “Unmanned Aerial Systems”, Is 2015 going to be the BIG YEAR? #colbyuas

10 Apr Precision Agriculture’s next step “Unmanned Aerial Systems”, Is 2015 going to be the BIG YEAR? #colbyuas

By Chad E. Colby     April 9th2015

Did you know your iPad just turned 5 years old this past week? Over the past 3 years I have had the honor of sharing an amazing new technology in the Agriculture Industry with industry professionals across the United States and Canada. Without question the hottest technology topic is Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).   Visiting with growers and industry professionals I have learned so much about the status of UAS and what growers want from this new fast paced technology.

With a lifetime background in farming and aviation, in my opinion 2015 is really setting up to be the breakthrough year in UAS. Not only is the FAA beginning to show a path of commercial use with recent announcement of notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) but the UAS industry is moving SO fast it’s hard to even believe looking back over the past 3 short years how far it has come.    Yesterday was another great example of that as one of the leading manufacture’s (DJI) rolled out its latest NEW ship, Phantom 3.   Next week there is a NEW ship from 3D Robotics, and I can’t wait to see it!

The biggest misconception about Unmanned Aerial System is that spending more money is better but remember this it’s NOT about how much money you spend. Too many times I hear about “first time” platforms costing $5000-$7000 or more just to carry a GoPro camera. Many amazing systems exist today for $1000-$4000.

Simply stated, the most important part of these UAS platforms is the images they create. You should expect over the next couple years some amazing advancement here.   And it’s NOT about spending mega cash on a camera like it was just a couple of years ago.   Remember when a 40 or 50” flat panel was $3000, and now it’s $300? It will be same with UAS.   In fact, some companies are effectively converting the common GoPro cameras (Peau Productions) to create more effective images.

So what’s new?

Ag Eagle. There’s no dispute that if you need to cover major acres you will need a fixed wing platform. The Ag Eagle product has really changed for 2015. The Rapid Ag Eagle now features DroneDeploy technology and can basically haul any type of sensor you may want now or in the future.  Ag Eagle has done a good job listening to the farmer and they understand their needs, including being cost effective.   Look for exciting things from Ag Eagle in the coming year.

Drone Deploy.   A technology that allows a grower to upload images from a UAS platform and get crop health maps in a matter of minutes with accuracy up to 2cm/pixel. Very simple process, it manages both the flight of the platform and the image collection with no stitching drama at a very low cost. Works with many different flight systems including but not limited to DJI, 3D Robotics and Ag Eagle. Both the simple systems like DJI Phantom 2 Vision + ($1099) or the advanced wing platform of the Ag Eagle with an advanced camera like the MicaSense Red Edge multispectral system.

DJI.   It has been a very exciting 6 months for the industry leader.   The practical use of the Phantom series of ships has been exciting.   The majority of the time we have been adding the GoPro camera to complete the Phantom ship, but lately DJI has been really making a strong effort to have the full package including a ship and sensor. First with the Phantom Vision and Vision Plus, and Inspire 1 and now the just released Phantom 3 Profession and Advanced.   Without going into all the details of these, just know the ships with OEM cameras will not be able to add a more advanced sensor over time. The recently released Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 have an integrated sensor.   A good part of this technology is that these ships work VERY well and are at a very attractive price point.

MicaSense. A new player in the sensor market over the past year, but the team has been in this industry a long time.   The new Red Edge multispectral camera is one of the real exciting new achievements in sensor technology.   It can be flown in anything from a DJI Phantom (although not real practical) up to a Cessna Airplane.   Look for more exciting things coming soon from them.

3D Robotics.   Has been around for a long time, really known in the marketplace for “do it yourself” systems.   But over the past year they have really stepped up their game.   With products like the IRIS + and Pixhawk autopilot they have advanced well in the market. They also have a major release coming later in this month, which will showcase a complete new platform.   They also use the DroneDeploy technology to process imagery in flight w/ on board cell phone technology.

There are many other amazing new products coming from other awesome companies who will also continue to advance UAS use in Agriculture and other industries.

  • PrecisionHawk.  Features a fully functional fixed wing ship called PrecisionHawk. Lots of excitement about this premium priced platform as it does offer a large selection of sensors.
  • Sensefly.  Has announced a new shipped call eXom coming soon with some new sensors and advanced situational awareness.   They also produce a winged ship call eBee.
  • Trimble.  A company is well know in the Ag Industry, has for years had a winged UAS called UX5.   Honestly it’s an amazing platform that has mainly been used overseas in the mapping and surveying of very large rock quarries.   It’s now being sold for agriculture use here in the US at premium price.
  • Pix4D.   This state of the art software can process your images into 2D & 3D models.
  • Lockheed Martin.   Maker of the Indago Vtol Quad Rotor, worth noting they are a high end military vendor who was the 1st to offer “consumer” based platform.
  • Aeryon Labs. This company features a very, high-end quad copter focusing more on the military and public safety. Recently they have announced a new sensor that features a new 20-megapixel camera with up to 30x optical zoom!
  • Aerialtronics.  This company also features high-end remote control systems. They are being used around the world in various venues.
  • NEW Applications for your smart phones and tablets are really expanding.   Keep your eye on some amazing new apps to help operate these UAS systems in ways never thought of.

There are other quality companies in this technology but in my opinion the above-mentioned companies are heading forward in the right direction with this expanding technology and have the resources to continue. The trick with this technology in the very near future is a return on your investment.   To accomplish that remember the real value is and always be in the imagery.  Historically stitching images together has been a REAL challenge and very time consuming but companies are starting to make that very practical.

My advice is to first time buyers? Most importantly is to understand the current UAS rules before you consider flying. Flying safely is most important, but just remember it’s NOT all about how much money you spend.   You can buy a great ship for $1500-3000 that will amaze you.

I’m looking forward to up coming FAA policy that will allow us to use this technology to make decisions on our farming operations.    So far it’s just been a super fun hobby.

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