Tech Corner

Using Drones to Boost Efficiency By Justin McClellan

Drones are some of today’s hottest high- tech toys. Early adopters are beginning to leverage their aerial view and high- definition cameras to improve the quality of their turf and landscaping. What do you need to know before you join the drone revolution?

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, are more than just remote control aircraft. What differentiates a drone is its autopilot. Drones enable the user to skip the pilot training and operate the drone with simple commands such as “go up,” “go left” via a simple interface, or even a phone or tablet.

Most drones also utilize GPS to enable a preprogrammed mission to be uploaded to the drone and flown automatically, making land surveys a breeze.

Drones predominantly come in two flavors: fixed-wing airplanes or multi-rotor helicop- ters. Fixed-wing airplanes typically fly lon- ger due to the efficiency of using wings for lift but require a good throw or a catapult

to launch as well as room to land. Multi- rotors are easy to operate in confined spac- es, can get close during an inspection and can stare at one area, but they typically fly for shorter periods.

Drones are nothing without their payload, which usually consists of one or more cam- eras. It’s not uncommon for the payload to be 25% – 50% of the total cost of the drone system. Many consumer drone sys- tems utilize interfaces to mount GoPro or similar HD video cameras. Most will record as well as downlink live video, enabling the user to do live inspections of a property, tree canopy or work site.

Commercial systems designed for agricul- ture, on the other hand, carry multiple still cameras tuned to specifically capture infra- red light in addition to standard visible images. These agricultural payloads enable a user to create normalized difference vegetative index images that exaggerate the “greenness” of a plant, enabling easier observation of areas under stress. External

software is typically needed to knit the hundreds or even thousands of still images into a mosaic and perform the math to obtain an NDVI image.

Companies such as GreenSight Agronom- ics, Micasense, Tetracam, and Precision Hawk are working on new agricultural payloads that carry five or six cameras to gather much more specific data on plant health. GreenSight is utilizing a military-grade thermal camera to obtain precise measurements of soil moisture.

Cost of a drone setup can vary tremen- dously based on the specific application. A consumer drone with an HD camera can be purchased for about $1,000. Most commercial agricultural systems are priced between $10,000 and $50,000 and may require additional software and a decent computer to process the images collected by the drone. Alternatively, industry- specific consultants can be hired to per- form one-time surveys for a few thousand dollars. More standard drone-videography services can found via platforms such as These have the advantage of placing the regulatory burden discussed below on someone else.

No discussion of drones is complete without a discussion of legal, privacy, and safety concerns. Legally there is a clear distinction between flying a drone for fun as a hobbyist and flying one for commer- cial purposes.

Hobbyists must register their drones at, remain below 400 feet, stay away from bystanders and contact the airport control tower if flying within five miles of an airport.

Photo Credit: Mapbox; 30 Irrigation TODAY | July 2016

Any commercial use of a drone requires the user to apply for an FAA 333 exemption that allows them to fly a vehicle lacking a pilot on board. Once approved, the 333

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