Views From Above Take Crop Scouting to the Next Level

By Bob Coverdill, Director of Flight Operations

I spent nearly 20 weeks this summer piloting drones over Illinois corn and soybean fields as part of the IntelinAir R&D team. I learned that while those fields may look very similar when you drive by at 55 mph, viewing them from above provides an entirely new perspective. The hundreds of thousands of high-res images we acquired using our multispectral cameras served to make one point clear to me: the ability for a farmer to monitor the progress of crops from above is a critically important perspective that will allow new insights to make more informed decisions, both this year and in the future.

This growing season IntelinAir had multiple flight teams of licensed pilots and engineering assistants flying drones equipped with high resolution multispectral cameras over thousands of acres of fields, including Illinois corn and soybeans, vineyards in California, and research plots in the northern Great Plains. While we focused on imagery from drones this year, we are looking to dramatically scale up the coverage in 2017 when we will add imagery from manned aircraft.

Every seven days from May through September we captured imagery data on the same set of R&D program fields and were able to examine at a very granular level the growth and health of plants from week to week. The proprietary software developed by IntelinAir engineers is a powerful and unique solution that can take the thousands of images of each field, compile them into one field image, and then identify the anomalies in that field in a clear and concise manner. What has changed from one week to the next? Are there specific spots in a field where a farmer or agronomist needs to go look in person? The insight gleaned goes far beyond what traditional imagery technology can provide.

The new and disruptive technology IntelinAir has created is the modern day equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack: finding a potential problem in a few plants in a few rows of a 160 acre cornfield. (Did I mention that the majority of acres in the U.S. Corn Belt are planted at 30,000 to 36,000 corn plants per acre?) It could be a weed infestation, lack of nitrogen, or disease issue – all with the potential to reduce yield.

Early in the growing season, some of these issues can be seen by a farmer or agronomist scouting fields; however, as corn plants mature to their full height, from the ground it is difficult to see beyond the first few rows of the field’s edge. And, even early in the season, it is nearly impossible for farmers to cover all of their hundreds or thousands of acres on a regular basis.

That’s where IntelinAir comes in. Taking aerial images on a regular schedule and using our proprietary technology to identify anomalies or changes gives farmers a blueprint to take their crop scouting efforts to the next level. They will now have GPS coordinates to find the potential problem zone – a map that points out exactly where the “needle” can be found.

Even more importantly, once they find a problem, they can very intentionally and specifically treat it in a smaller, more focused area. That focused approach will save time and resources that might previously have been used to treat an entire field, or missed entirely and resulted in lost yield. It is also a more sustainable approach for farmers who want to use only the crop protection, fertilizer and water resources that the crop needs, helping to protect our environment.

As farmers are wrapping up the 2016 harvest season, we’re looking forward to combining the data from growing season imagery with final production results to create comprehensive reporting packages that will give growers insights they’ve never had before. These results, combined with their own experience, will help them develop a strategic plan for 2017 that is an optimal, profitable, and sustainable fit for their operation.