An Aerial Option

From CropLife Magazine, April, 2009 When John Deere Agri Services chose to shutter its OptiGro remote imagery offering in the spring of 2008, it soon after sold the business to GeoVantage. This was the very same company that Deere had acquired the imagery business from in 2006 to allow it to quickly ramp up an imagery service division.

GeoVantage started out serving the forestry industry with imagery, and currently serves the urban planning and environmental management markets in addition to agriculture. It took some time to get the agriculture division refocused, but the company is ready to go, says Justin Dodge, manager of flight operations.

Now, with a new season ahead and a full year behind it, GeoVantage has re-integrated the agriculture business and is ready to serve retailers, cooperatives, and precision consultants with aerial imagery.
“We identified agriculture as one of our two main focuses,” says Dodge. “Nick Morrow is the lead for that business, and he has picked up where Deere left off.”

“More than anything,” says Morrow, “we will be working with channel partners and consultants to help them develop their own value-added applications that run on our imagery — to get the imagery out to their customers on a unique platform that they can sell.”

Fully Equipped

One of the benefits of Deere’s involvement in the division was the production of the imagery capturing technology. The aerial imagery technology combines a global positioning navigation system (GPS) and inertial measurement unit (IMU) technology in 4-band digital sensors to capture both natural color and Color Infrared (NIR) images. The images are Geographical Information System (GIS) ready, geo-registered, and high resolution.

GeoVantage originally developed the technology, and through the acquisition now owns some 80 camera units built by Deere in 2006. The cameras can be shipped anywhere, and are easily fixed to aircraft. All imagery is captured and delivered digitally, so turnaround time is quick and cost effective.

“The systems feature integrated IMU and GPS,” says Morrow, “with a military-grade IMU that gives it an accuracy advantage over straight GPS systems and allows us to process the imagery very quickly.” Essentially, it gives the company the ability to deliver on the promise of aerial imagery for rapid and accurate visual feedback on field conditions.

“The aerial imagery industry has, in general, made a lot of promises it has not delivered on,” says Dodge. “The real challenge in the past has been to get imagery to the point that you could do something with it. Our mission is to build it to serve the agriculture market and continue to grow the adoption of imagery year-over-year by delivering timely, accurate imagery data that is usable.”

GeoVantage maintains a staff of 10 full-time employees, and relies heavily on outside contracts with pilots, software and hardware builders, and consultants who gather imagery, calibrate, build, and maintain the cameras and other work necessary to delivering imagery.

Partnering Up

The company’s emphasis presently is on building relationships with partners who are already involved heavily with advising growers. For GeoVantage, a good “partner” would be an organization with solid GIS expertise in-house, such as a larger cooperative, independent retailer, or agronomic consultant firm. The company has had a successful relationship with the Iowa Soybean Association, providing imagery for evaluating nitrogen management practices.

“Large organizations lots of times have GIS specialists on staff, and they are looking for data so that they can do more in-depth analysis on a field,” says Morrow.

Smaller retailers or consultants with less expertise in GIS are generally looking for indexes such as Normalized Differential Vegetation Index (NDVI) to provide visual information that can be overlaid with a yield map to help with management. That said, there are few consistencies across customers in terms of who wants what from imagery.

“Every business and every region wants something a little different, or something for a different reason for use,” says Morrow. “One customer might want in-season imagery of corn to look for nitrogen deficiency after a wet spring. Another customer might want to do soil imagery to test the viability of tile work right after a huge rain to see how it worked.”

At some point in the future, GeoVantage will develop a Web-based working “front end” ordering system that will allow “self-service” access to value-added offerings that GeoVantage would develop. But the local variability of farm fields and diversity of individual farmer needs and wants is a limiting factor to developing anything too specific or prescriptive. “We hope to make a value-added offering available at some point, but we are still really trying to determine the nature of that offering,” says Dodge. “Again, the nature of agriculture is localized variability, which makes a one-size-fits-all solution a challenge.”

Imagery is available year-round, and a 2,000-acre minimum is required before an order will be accepted. If a flight is already scheduled, orders can sometimes be piggy-backed making it possible to get imagery for orders less than 2,000 acres.

For more information, contact Nick Morrow via email or visit the GeoVantage website.

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