Multispectral: More data from each flight

Many companies have been clambering for top spot in the agricultural drone market. Incredible improvements in robotics and flight technology have created aircraft that can fly further, faster, and longer. They gather data seemingly autonomously, though for regulatory reasons there must always be an authorized pilot in charge for safety reasons.

With the immense pace of change in the aircraft, the development of sensors and software did not keep up. Most farm unmanned aerial systems (UAS) today are using either standard visible-light (RGB) cameras or consumer cameras converted to also collect near-infrared light. That is, until 2016. Now multispectral sensors have finally come of age and are affordable enough for use on both field and specialty crops.

Vineyards are using these systems to provide valuable new insight.

“Adding value to the client’s operation is key. UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] imagery has gone beyond a pretty picture and we are now delivering actionable data that vineyard managers can put to work to produce a better product,” says Stu Adam from Agronomeye in New South Wales, Australia.

Agronomeye pilot preparing to fly a fixed-wing mission at Tyrrell’s Wines.

The Slantrange 3p used by Agronomeye in Australia (available from LandView in Canada) is a multispectral system that gathers four distinct bands of light: two visible-spectrum bands, a broader near-infrared band, and a narrow red-edge band.  There are two key advantages of these multispectral systems: many narrow bands of light give deeper insight, and calibration of the imagery improves comparability over time.

The Slantview software, for example, can use the four bands of light to create maps of things as varied as weed pressure, crop stress, canopy coverage, and yield potential. The sensors are measuring light reflected by plants and soil, but the amount of light reflected varies with the amount and type of ambient light at the time the image was taken. Maps from earlier in the day or under clouds are now comparable to images taken under bright sun at high noon. In addition, the Slantrange starts processing the imagery with an onboard computer with access to its own GPS, compass, and accelerometer data to make the maps available within minutes after a flight.

Vineyard stress map at one-metre resolution with insets at 10-centimetre pixels with soil filtering applied.

Agronomeye provides professional imagery services to the vineyards of Tyrrell’s Wines in Australia (fifth-generation vineyards; two-million bottles per year). Agronomeye pilots fly custom aircraft of their own design and use the Slantrange sensor to develop a variety of maps. Andrew Pengilly, the vineyard manager, considers the imagery a management tool that assists him in seeing blocks across the entire property instead of just what they could see at ground level. For him, it is about achieving uniformity and producing the highest-quality product.

The periodic scans are matched up to vineyard condition records, daily grape testing, and fermentation levels. The hope is that data tracked throughout the season will provide insight into parameters contributing to better quality. In the wine industry, decision-making must go beyond the current year, and Tyrrell’s uses the imagery not only for annual management and budgetary direction, but also as part of long-term future planning.

Chris Tyrrell, the chief operating officer, suggests that it is less about making money now.

“You’ve got to think about 10, 20, 160 years into the future. So how does this year’s data affect what we do next year, how does that affect what the vineyard is going to be doing in 10 years? Every year you’ve got to strive to get better and this is another tool to help us do that. We will definitely expand the service.”

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