The Coming Wide-Spread Use of Drones in Agriculture

Whether you call them UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), Drones, or something less polite – people are more familiar than ever with them. We’ll call them drones, and we’re not talking about the remote-controlled toy kind – we’re talking about the flying robot kind. They have sensors (GPS and more), can be given a Flight Plan (instructions on where to go), and can follow that plan autonomously while carrying out other instructions – no human pilot required. Many high-end tractors are already in service with this kind of automation and we’ve even seen automated harvesting assistance. But flying drones are small and they don’t plant seeds or pull weeds, so what exactly do they have to do with agriculture?

There are certain things that drones are very good at, and there are things in agriculture that are important but troublesome to do or get. Some of these things overlap, and in those spaces is where a budding industry has arisen.

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Seeing plant health in infrared

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Since the 70s, NASA, NOAA, and the USGS have been operating a series of satellites designed to look at vegetation health around the world. These satellites, going under the name Landsat, use specialized camera filters that look at light reflecting off chlorophyll to gauge the health of forests, plains, oceans, and even farms. It’s all very interesting technology, and a few very cool people want to put one of these near infrared cameras in the hands of everyone.

The basic idea behind gauging the health of plants from orbit, or the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, is actually pretty simple: absorb red and blue light (thus our verdant forests), and reflect nearly all infrared light. By removing the IR filter from a digital camera and adding a ‘superblue’ filter, the NDVI can be calculated with just a little bit of image processing.

The folks behind this have put up a Kickstarter with rewards including a modified webcam, a custom point and shoot camera, and a very low-cost source of one of these superblue filters. Just the thing to see how your garden grows or how efficiently you can kill a houseplant.