Geo-referenced drone helicopters eliminate the need to wait for a satellite to fly over on a perfectly cloudless day or pay an airplane to snap aerial photos.
Battery powered helicopters with cameras have been around for a decade but were not capable of performing serious crop scouting until recently with the addition of high resolution cameras that pinpoint and document every square centimetre on a computer field map.
Agco will debut its Solo Agco Edition drone helicopter at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, Sept. 1. It features intuitive mission planning and cloud-based, high-resolution mapping software.
The machine comes standard with hardware, software, four batteries, three-axis gimbal, service and support.
Based on the 3D Robotics Solo platform, the Agco version has a maximum speed of 55 m.p.h. and can fly in winds up to 25 m.p.h. Reviewers who have test flown the Agco Solo say it can hover in a five foot circle while idling in a 25 m.p.h. wind.
Flight time per battery is about 20 minutes, similar to that of other radio controlled choppers.
One fully charged battery is capable of covering up to 60 acres, depending on conditions and user-defined settings.
The images are geo-referenced and can be exported in a variety of formats compatible with any precision ag software package.
“Setting up a field for scouting is relatively easy with the 3D Robotics intuitive mission planning feature. This simply means that the operator sets a few parameters such as altitude and side lap. Essentially you just use your finger on the tablet to draw the perimeter around the area you want to scout. The app will then plan the best route to fly,” said Jeff Punter of Agco.
“You can plan to scout 240 acres, or four batteries worth of time. You enter the 240 acres and the Solo will come back for a fresh battery when needed, then go back out and start again at the precise location where it stopped.”
Punter said images are not transmitted back to the tablet in real time. Rather, they are stored on the SD card in the camera.
“After the mission, we utilize the tablet and the SD card from the camera. We use a PC to extract the data and it uses the flight logs from the tablet to geo-reference the images and stitch them together.”
He said the process of accurately stitching high resolution aerial images together, also known as ortho-mosaics, is essential in turning toy-quality drone photos into images that have high value to the user.
Growers or agronomists who see a problem can program the Solo to go back to the exact spot at a lower altitude to take close-up photos with higher resolution.
Another option for a closer look is to put the camera into the video mode and stream live video back to the tablet.
“The resolution depends on the altitude the operator wants. It can be as high as 2.5 centimetres per pixel,” he said.
“We have an emergency in-air brake, which is a pause button on the tablet. Push the button and the Solo will hover for as long as you want. Press the auto button to make it continue on the mission.”
Solo comes equipped with an RGB camera for color imaging and a near-infrared camera for monitoring photosynthetic activity or plant health.
The package includes one year of Agribotix imaging software to give the customer high-resolution ortho-mosaic NDVI maps. These geo-referenced images allow the customer to create management zone maps to deal with potential yield-limiting problems.
Image processing history, which is maintained in remote computer servers, also called the cloud, allows for comprehensive field condition comparisons, according to Agco.
Live flight data includes battery life, altitude and distance from home. This data is streamed to the operator’s controller for real-time flight control.
“You don’t need to be tech savvy to operate this UAV,” Punter said.
“You just need to be able to press launch.”
The Solo Agco has a price tag of $7,850 and is available through all Canadian Agco dealers.