From Planes, Trains and Automobiles to Planes, Drones and Satellites

By Greg Rose, VP Product and Co-Founder

The classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles features two mismatched traveling companions finding their way home for the holidays on a haphazard combination of airplanes, trains and cars, and enduring all manner of delays along the way.

As a Chicago native, I can identify with the pitfalls that come with winter travel in the Midwest.

In my role developing products and technology at IntelinAir, I can also relate to the movie’s title. Just like it took a combination of transportation sources to get Steve Martin and John Candy home, I believe it takes a combination of aerial imagery sources for today’s farmers to get the information they need to make decisions during the growing season.

The images provided by planes, drones, and satellites have each evolved to provide valuable data for agriculture today. They all have benefits and drawbacks, which can be evaluated by budget, resolution, and timing.

I like to think about imagery in terms of resolution and the decisions that can be made with each level of detail. Each level provides a new perspective and opportunities to take actions based on those perspectives:

“To the Field or Zone”
Satellite imagery is often the most accessible and affordable way for growers and agronomists to get insight into their crops at the field or zone level. However, it comes with significant trade-offs for both timing and resolution. Images are taken on a schedule determined by the satellite provider, and if there is cloud cover or other weather issues on the scheduled date, no image can be taken. This is particularly challenging in the Midwest where cloud cover is common during critical parts of the growing season.

Resolution from satellite data is typically in meters per individual pixel, which means it’s not possible to distinguish the individual row or plant. It’s most appropriate for field or zone level analysis. This analysis is similar to an early screening in medicine: The satellite imagery can provide a high-level overview of crop conditions and point out potential problem areas for a farmer to investigate further.

“To the Row” or “To the Plant”
It’s possible to use both manned airplanes and drones to capture higher resolution imagery in the 5- to 20-cm range. This higher quality resolution makes it possible to move from the field level to seeing rows and even individual plants. Analyzing imagery at the row or plant level allows us to learn significantly more about plant health and growing conditions. We can see the impact of too much water, variation in nitrogen fertilizer levels, issues in emergence, and other issues. It’s at this resolution that the core of IntelinAir’s analytics are focused.

The cost of contract flights vary and are typically proportional to the resolution of the imagery. There is also additional flexibility with timing because flights can be scheduled to a specific timeline and can be adjusted for weather or cloud cover as needed. Drones have rapidly gained popularity in agriculture and provide the highest flexibility for growers or agronomists who own their own drones and equipment or work with a UAV contract pilot. The costs of operating a drone are higher than accessing satellite images or contract flights, but this is a rapidly changing marketplace as new FAA rules have made it easier than ever before to fly.

“To the Leaf”
A significant benefit to drones is that they can fly quite low to the crop canopy and capture images with astonishingly high resolution, to the 1-cm range or below. This allows for imagery where it is possible to discern individual leaves. This is significant as many issues, including various nutrient deficiencies, insect infestations, or diseases, can be detected at this resolution.

At IntelinAir, we are focused on helping growers make the absolute most of high-resolution images. I believe an entirely new class of issues can be solved with the combination of high resolution imagery and deep learning technologies. We are developing our AgMRI™ Intelligence System to do just that and help farmers identify, diagnose, and treat problems during the growing season.

Greg Rose has nearly two decades of experience launching innovative analytics products that make processes more efficient through digitization. His passion is applying data science to help solve the biggest challenges facing companies and entire industries.