Preflight checklists make flights safe and data sound

When farmers are preparing drones for the season’s reconnaissance, there are vital preparations and decisions that must first be addressed.

Producers should have a checklist of things to look at before launching their drones.

First, says Felix Weber, operators must check to see whether they have the right approvals.

“The law has changed as of January 2017. In a way, it has been made a little bit easier and … it probably is more clear of what the law is,” said the president of Ag Business and Crop in Palmerston, Ont., which sells the EB Sequoia fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicle.

Anyone using a UAV must have a special flight operating certificate (SFOC).

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer or if you’re a personal user, the law is now very clear that anything over 250 grams needs somehow an SFOC,” said Weber.

“It isn’t very complicated, but you follow the rules. If you lift off or if you launch a UAV … you get into the air space, which means the air traffic. That’s the first thing that somebody has to know.

“From a checklist perspective … you have to know how close you are to an airport and built-up areas and what the surrounding is.”

Operators can read about the SFOC or how to apply for an exemption at Transport Canada’s website here..

At the beginning of the season:

  • Make sure software is updated.
  • Ensure all batteries are charged and that they’re in good shape. Lithium batteries deteriorate.
  • Place fresh batteries in the back-up controller.
  • Lift the drone and check the computer to see if elevation and other instruments are registering movement.
  • Rotary aircraft require service more often than fixed wings because of moving parts. Software indicates how many flight hours have been completed — 100 is typically the service interval. Warning lights on the Sequoia come on after 80 hours. Record how many hours of flight the drone logged last year for reference.
  • Look for air-frame cracks and ensure the propeller is in good shape. A weakened propeller will not be able to push the drone effectively, reducing acreage coverage.

Bobby Vick with PrecisionHawk in Raleigh, North Carolina, markets the most common drone platform in agriculture — the DJI Matrice 100 quadcopter.

He said choices start long before pre-flighting:

  • What kind of crops will the drone be flying over?
  • How many acres and what crop stages will the drone be likely to fly over?
  • What sensors, such as visual, multi-spec camera or thermal, are needed?
  • What software will be used to fly the drone and process imagery?

Operators must also take into consideration sunlight and wind. Consistent sunlight is important for good imagery, said Vick, and winds should be below 10 metres per second.

“Depending on the timing of what you’re flying, you might be looking for something very different. If you’re flying right after planting at emergence and you’re trying to evaluate stand counts, the necessity of a high-resolution image is more important than later in the season when I’m just trying to assess overall crop health.”

So, farmers must decide what resolution is needed to get the job done. That decision governs the altitude of the flight, based on the sensor and the platform used.

Farmers often use the drone four or five times during the season. First on the list is to scout out drainage and elevation.

The drone will likely fly again soon after emergence to assess the stand.

“Did you get the stand that you’re looking for? Is there an option to go back and do any replanting or adjust input management decisions?”

Then, a mid-season flight will track the progression of maturity, looking for water, disease, pest or nutrient stress so farmers can make decisions.

Near harvest time, farmers can use the drone to make decisions on whether the crops have reached maturity and are ready to harvest, and also “which (fields) are most critical for me to get in and get the crop out.”

Ultimately, a good plan on how to use the drone is important, said Vick. He advises farmers to ask themselves: “For the crop that I’m growing, what is it that if I had more information during the growing season, what management decisions could that impact?”

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