On February 28, 2017, at the Cove, Sustain OC, introduced two technologies that will help make Precision Agriculture (PA) possible. PA uses technology to make farming more efficient by optimizing inputs of land, water, fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides.
Eileen Licitra, director of product marketing, ClearAg, at Iteris, Inc. presented Iteris’ predictive crop analytics platform. Santa Ana-based Iteris supplies informatics for the transportation, agriculture, roadway sensors, and analytics industries. The company’s global informatics platform amasses data from multiple sources, incorporating it into its proprietary analysis and weather forecasting system. Iteris delivers information via a variety of web and mobile apps. Land surface modeling is customized and adapted for agriculture. The platform dynamically adapts to provide the best answer for any location in the world. It can monitor sub-surface soil as well.
Potential customers include crop science and irrigation hardware companies. Precision agriculture informatics and computing connect smart devices like robotics, drones, farm management software, and ERPs. PA is now estimated to be a $15 billion business.
Receiving up-to-date, localized information on climate, moisture levels, and soil temperatures affecting growing conditions enables farmers to better calibrate labor schedules, pesticides, fertilizer application, and water needs.
Optimizing land and resources is crucial, according to Licitra, because farm income and profits are declining along with commodity price and decreases in arable land. Increasing demand for water dwarfs supply; seventy percent of fresh water in the world is used for irrigation. Meanwhile, the human population is increasing. “How are we going to feed 2 billion more people by 2050?” Licitra asked. “We need to do more with less, more efficiently.”
“There are always challenges. “Farmers want proof. Small startups fail because they don’t always provide value to growers. Data must be actionable, so farmers can do something about it. What is the return on investment? Farmers are reluctant to add new costs. Growers are hesitant to share data.” However, according to Licitra, predictive analytics enables farmers to make better decisions. Younger- generation farmers are also more inclined to adopt new technologies.
Drones and Analytics for Superior Performance
Next, Steve Gitlin, VP corporate strategy, communications and investor relations at Monrovia- based AeroVironment, presented on using drones for precision agriculture. AeroVironment provides electric vehicle charging solutions and unmanned aircraft systems, and supplies more than 85% of the drones used by the U.S. military.
Over the years, the company and its founder, the late Dr. Paul MacCready, have engaged in high-profile projects including: the Gossamer Condor human- powered airplane in the 1970s, the Sunraycer, winner of the first solar car race, the Helios solar-powered unmanned airplane prototype for NASA that in 2001, set the world record for highest altitude in flight. Six years ago, DARPA hired the company to develop the Nano Hummingbird, an unmanned aircraft that looks and flies like a real hummingbird.
AeroVironment is now applying its QuantixTM/AV DSSTM drone and analytics system for aerial sensing and is working with early adopters in agriculture. The drone takes off vertically like a rocket, and upon reaching designated altitude, transitions to horizontal flight for scanning. “If you can use a tablet device, you can operate this drone,” Gitlin says.
Current quadcopters have a battery life of 15 to 20 minutes, require substantial human interaction, and are relatively fragile. But Quantix was developed for real- world conditions based on the company’s experience in building drones for military missions. “Hand-held, you take the pieces of our drone out of a backpack, put them together, and launch the aircraft by hand.” Gitlin said. “They land hard, dissipating energy by disassembling themselves. Then you put the pieces back in your backpack or put the aircraft together again for another mission.”
According to Gitlin, the Quantix drone has one-button operation. Its sensors include downward-facing RGB color and multispectral cameras, and a solar sensor looking up to adjust the resulting composite images for variability in ambient light. The drone is linked to the AV Decision Support System (DSS). The images it collects are georectified, tagged, then geostitched together automatically to create a composite image. “It takes images that can be weaved into Google Earth, and can allow the viewer to identify specific plants.” Gitlin said. The Quantix drone typically flies no higher than 400 feet above the ground, conforming to FAA regulations, and deliver a 1-inch ground sampling distance resolution. Farmers look at the composite image of their field, identify hotspots, then zoom into individual areas to gain a closer view. “You outline the field you wish to scan on the tablet screen with your finger, get 50 feet away and launch.” Gitlin said, cautioning that FAA regulations require line-of-sight and daytime operation. “While you don’t have to file a flight plan with the FAA, you can’t operate within 5 miles of a major airport and must comply with all FAA regulations.” said Gitlin.
Quantix’s range is bounded by the battery which is allowed to be shipped commercially.”Currently that spans 400-plus acres in a 45-minute flight,” Gitlin said. So far AeroVironment has tested the technology on multiple farms, including a 40-acre walnut farm of 2,500 trees. According to Gitlin, removing the memory card from the Quantix after its flight and plugging it into the included tablet displays the imagery immediately. Data can then be uploaded into the company’s DSS. For example, the farmer can use the imagery to GPS-tag locations of stunted trees, then conduct a close-up inspection using a smartphone app to record notes and photos.
AeroVironment projects that its drones will cost between $15,000 to $30,000, and there will be subscription options available for the DSS. In test cases so far, the Quantix showed improvements in productivity in fields of walnuts, vineyards, and tomatoes. A water use study on almond trees is currently underway with Fresno State University. The drone also helps catch pest infestations well before expensive crop damage incurs.
The DSS is a cloud based analytics platform, with storage for analytics and historical comparisons. “We are restoring the intimacy that growers once had with their crops, when fields were much smaller and growers could walk them in their entirety,” said Gitlin. “We can help manage plant health through anomaly detection. With our AV DSS, all the data are accessible through the Web, with password protection. The system is web-based, plug and play, can integrate with data from other types of drones, and is configurable on desktop and smartphone.”