Eyes in the skies better than feet in the field

The science of crop scouting is reaching new heights, with remote control helicopters flying at altitudes from 10 feet to 100 feet.

Although battery powered RC fixed wing planes are gradually gaining acceptance by crop consultants, these aircraft require speed to stay in the air. They can’t slow down or stop and hover to focus in on a trouble spot.

RC airplane pilots openly joke that their landings are akin to controlled crashes, but the occasional damage to the costly digital devices and data loss is no laughing matter.

Gasoline powered RC helicopters, on the other hand, can fly slowly, and can stop, drop down and hover to allow the cameras a closer look at pinpoint spots in the field.

They also land gently without damaging the machine or the electronic packages on board, according to Don Effren, president of the AutoCopter Corporation in North Carolina.

Effren says the main advantage of his AutoCopter system over fixed wing RC aircraft or foot scouting is the ability to reliably download and process data within minutes of landing.

“The immediacy of the information is invaluable. It’s like the difference between scouting by autopsy versus scouting by current real time information.”

He says scouting according to last year’s yield maps is the autopsy method, while using images that are only minutes old enables growers to make immediate decisions about applying crop protection products.

“Our helicopter carries three full-sized cameras to capture multi-spectral data. We can process that data in the field within five minutes of landing the helicopter. The pilot quickly sees GeoTiff NDVI images of any part of the field.”

The multi-spectral camera converts raw data into NDVI images within five minutes of landing. These files can be imported into farm management programs such as Ag Leader, SMS, SST and Apex. Effren says up to 500 images can be processed into a single file.

The digital single lens reflex Nikon B5100 shoots four frames per second with a 16.2 megapixel capacity. All images are mosaicked and geo-referenced.

The GoPro HD video provides a live video downlink so the pilot can see what the helicopter is viewing as it flies. The camera captures video at 1080p and 30 frames per second, 960p at 48 and 720p at 60.

Since introducing the AutoCopter concept two years ago, Effren has found it necessary to increase the flying time of the gas powered chopper to two full hours between fuel fills.

This met the needs of a Russian energy company using AutoCopters to inspect their pipelines. Effren says two-hour flight time is now standard on all units he sells for ag purposes.

“The AutoCopter uses about a half gallon per hour. So if you’re field scouting, you can fly six hours with only two fuel stops. Realistically, that’s about all you want to do in a day anyway,” says Effren.

Each two-hour flight is pre-programmed to cover certain fields in a specific pattern. Two hours is longer than required to fly a single field, so the flight plan can be designed to skip over non-target fields and proceed to the next target field.

“Your flight pattern over each field can be saved and replicated over and over. The helicopter gives you more accurate replication of the flight pattern than a remote control airplane.”

He says the precise control of the chopper allows users to go down to the same trouble spots each flight for close-up photos. Or operators can go back and take a second look at a particular spot.

“That kind of pinpoint accuracy gives you information to write more accurate scripts for your VRT prescriptions.”

Although AutoCopter can run autonomously, federal regulations in the U.S. and Canada require an on-site, within-sight human pilot. Effren says the new automatic takeoff and landing feature allows two hours of programmed flight with a safe landing.

“But for safety and legal reasons, you need someone to monitor the flight and keep the helicopter in view.

“If it’s programmed to hop from one field to another, the operator simply follows in the pickup. Although it can go down to 10 feet for close-up inspections, it normally flies at 100 feet, so it’s easy to see.”

Effren says his system frees up the operator from many of the constraints farmers don’t like about RC fixed wing aircraft. The helicopter has no need for an outside vendor to handle the data, there are not time delays in retrieving data, and it can fly on cloudy days just minutes after rain stops.

Effren says it takes about two hours to teach a novice to fly the AutoCopter and monitor what they see in the field.

The helicopter can be fully automated, or the operator has the option of turning off the autopilot to steer it himself. Either way, the integral self-preservation feature will not allow the machine to crash.

A novice operator might be able to launch the AutoCopter and watch it perform over a field, but how can a novice know when to instruct the chopper to go down for a closer look at a problem spot?

Compound that challenge by the fact that one day of programmed flight for AutoCopter day might cover four or five different types of crops.

“You don’t need to be an agronomist to pick out trouble spots or areas of concern in the field.

“I am not an agronomist or anything like that. But I can tell you from piloting this thing over a lot of fields, that you can see these areas of concern immediately. They jump out at you.

“This multispectral imagery can pick up things in a field that are simply not visible to the naked human eye.

“The imagery is like a traffic light. Green areas on the monitor are good to go. Yellow areas indicate some concern. Red tells you there’s a problem in that defined area.”

Effren says he sells the AutoCopter as a complete package, which includes the AutoCopter, full training, all hardware, GPS enabled software, three cameras and video downlink for live images to ground control station.

When AutoCopter was introduced two years ago, it carried an introductory list price of $75,000 US.

Contact Don Effrens at 704-562-8469 or visit www.autocopter.net.



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