Aerial Imagery: Choose Your Own Adventure

The aerial imagery industry is in a rather strange place currently. Which of the three options (satellite, manned aircraft, or drone) is best for your situation will likely depend on who you ask (and who that person works for).

The satellite guys can point to their lower cost per acre and other benefits, the manned aircraft guys can continue to point out the efficiencies of scale gained by deploying aircraft-mounted sensors that cover hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions!) of acres in one flight, and the drone guys can boast about resolution superiority and the increasing ease-of-access to cheaper drone technology.

And all three of those claims wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. All three options certainly have their fit in different scenarios.

Drones Look to Find Fit

Still, as Illinois grower Steve Pit­stick recently opined at our annual PrecisionAg Innovation Series event held in Des Moines, IA, this is something guys digging deep into Big Data decision making need to figure out as soon as possible. “I have a feeling in-season imagery is going to be very important going forward. I haven’t figured out how to use it yet, but I feel it’s going to be very important.”

Aker, a Minnesota-based UAV imagery provider that has flown and imaged over 40,000 acres since its 2013 debut, is one of many drone service providers that stand to benefit from FAAs new more-accessible commercial UAV regulation, Part 107.

That said, we all know that a lack of quantifiable return-on-investment (ROI) is the main aspect holding back widespread adoption of drones. Aker itself, according to CEO and Co-Founder Orlando Saez, however is seeing good ROI from its directed scouting service.

“We use drones as a restaurant would use a stove, it’s just a tool like any other,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of tools out there directing people to where the high probability problem spots are in the field. We are powering ag retailers and suppliers with a tool that they can use to leverage the knowledge we provide, and match problems in the field with solutions in the form of crop inputs.”

Aker flies a mixed fleet of DJI quadcopters and senseFly eBees. It offers three sensor packages currently: RGB, Multi-spectral and thermal. Using the thermal sensor to produce soil temperature maps for variable rate prescription seeding is a somewhat new concept that is gaining acceptance in Aker’s operating territory, according to Saez.

“Thermal is a very powerful component; just about every cooperative relies on soil temperature maps to do variable rate prescription maps,” he says. “It’s all about water retention in the soil. Thermal gives you the correlation of soil type to water holding capacity, as well as a positive correlation to yield, so we can do a bare soil thermal assessment and come up with a direct correlation to yield.”

Satellite Scalability

Satshot President and CEO Lanny Faleide himself knows a thing or two about aerial imagery, and he believes what sets the Fargo, ND-based imagery provider apart from many of its detractors is the ability to scale up its image collection efforts at a moment’s notice.

“We run a very tight ship at Satshot,” he says. “We’re less than 10 people, and we can cover the globe because we’ve built fully automatic systems. That’s the power that we can bring to the precision ag sector. We can get you data.”

Satshot got its start working with LANDSAT imagery way back in 1998, and Faleide says for the past three years the company has been tasking Planet Labs satellites and, most recently, those of an unnamed provider out of Asia that “is floating one meter imagery.”

“Everything is complimentary,” he explains. “I can shoot satellites at times where airplanes probably can’t and drones definitely can’t. If there’s 40-50 mph winds and clear skies, I’m going to shoot 300 million acres that day. It’s a logistics game, it has nothing to do with the technology.”

Faleide describes Satshot’s go-to-market strategy as “On demand imaging — we task satellites to capture certain areas/footprints. We task lower resolution satellites in a large sequence and our customers can go in and have an image almost immediately. Our goal is to have an image of your field available every week in our Landscout mobile app.”

Manned Aircraft Advantages

Meanwhile, Kevin Spry is the VP of Operations for GeoG2 Solutions, a manned-aircraft NDVI imagery provider stationed at Moffet Field, a joint civil-military airfield located in Sunnyvale, CA, owned and operated by NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Spry got his start in remote sensing in agriculture way back in 1995, and he says GeoG2 “covers 11 million to 12 million acres in California every 28 days in the growing season with manned aircraft — high performance twin engine turbo prop planes, to be exact.”

Spry believes drones, while having their fit for niche situations like on-farm field inspections or gathering imagery on small test plots, are “a fad, just like the big satellites were.”

“When space imaging was launched in 1996 we tried to get one set of images over the Salinas Valley, but because of how the Valley sat and the flight path (of the satellite) it took 26 individual images, and they could not collect those 26 images within the year because of cloud cover or too much sun. In a plane I can fly that in two minutes. We concentrate on high performance airplanes, we get up high, fly fast (25,000 feet at 250 knots), and we can collect data on almost six million acres in a seven hour day.”

Spry also takes issue with the cost of doing business in the micro-satellite space.

“And you’ve got the satellites, you’ve got the RapidEyes — that’s a $500 million dollar program that eventually sold for $18 million, so the economics of that probably didn’t work out,” he reasons. “When you put a satellite system up, they’ve already spent the $500 million to get the thing built and launched, then you never have enough time to develop the market to make that money back.”

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