Drone Challenge: first prize nets US$140,000

Have drone aerial images be-come useful tools yet, or are they still stuck in the realm of “pretty pictures?”

The best response to this challenge will net someone US$140,000 cash.

Rapid evolution in drone technology has made high-resolution aerial field photos readily available to all farmers at a reasonable cost.

A whole new industry has em-erged in the past five years, fostered by farmer demand for better programs to make better use of their drone images.

Surprisingly, we still hear the accusation that those aerial field images are still nothing more than pretty pictures. While the new ag-oriented programs seem to work magic in the hands of a professional, many farmers say that they have neither the training nor the time to optimize their drone investment.

It all comes down to having practical user-friendly fool-proof programs. If they’re too complex or too time-consuming, the drone owner does not get the best bang for his buck.

The Land O’ Lakes Co-op, a century-old Minnesota-based farmer-owned co-op with members in all 50 states, decided it was time to bridge the gap between producers and their drones.

Drone technology is one of the hottest topics in agriculture today, but available solutions have not yet evolved to the extent that they are cost effective tools, the co-op said. In response to this problem, Land O’ Lakes’ Drone Challenge contest is a serious one with a serious first place award.


The Land O’Lakes Co-op is looking for innovative software tools that can tap the potential of drone technology by integrating it with precision agriculture. | File phot

The contest is looking for a new innovative app that helps growers turn their expensive flying toys into valuable farm implements.

The co-op is looking for more than a new version of an old program. Instead, it is looking for a genuine breakthrough.

Members of the Drone Challenge team feel these machines have tremendous untapped potential to push the cutting edge of precision agriculture much deeper into the problems facing farmers. They think farmers themselves are the people to steer that cutting edge.

“A truly exceptional integration of aerial drone imagery and automation still doesn’t exist,” the co-op said.

“As a result, there’s a huge opportunity for innovators to bring world-class imagery, smart tech and scalable technology together in a ground-breaking solution for farms everywhere.”

Organizers of the challenge point out that agriculture has a tradition of adapting to changing conditions and using the latest innovations. Farmers deal with pressures such as demand for sustainability, maximizing yields, maintaining margins and managing water use. As these pressures increase, more of their decisions are driven by hard data rather than seat-of-the-pants notions.

Farmers have always collected field data. The process was once as simple as walking through a field making mental observations. However, given the size of today’s farms, a producer can no longer rely on that simple method of data collection.

In the past two decades, precision agriculture has emerged through the marriage of satellites and precision machinery. Data from multispectral satellite images depict plant health and field productivity in small zones.

Land O’ Lakes has been recognized as a leader in the area of satellite-based management by bringing the WinField R7 Tool to farmers. Marrying this satellite data to variable rate machinery allowed its clients to design field management specific to the needs of their crops. The result has been better water efficiency, less fertilizer waste and higher yields.

However, drones can do things for farmers that no satellite can. They provide immediacy, repeatability, the ability to go back and fly a puzzling zone again the same day, higher resolution and the ability to create images on cloudy days. The next frontier in precision ag will be enabled with higher resolution data captured on demand.

Mike Vande Logt of WinField United said farmers must get to the field, launch the drone, take the pictures, pack up, download the data, stitch the images together and then figure out what the images are telling them.

“It’s time consuming and the applications are difficult to use,” he said.

By issuing the Drone Challenge, Land O’ Lakes is seeking proposed solutions that enable scalable, autonomous drone use in precision agriculture. The prize will be awarded to an individual or team that develops a new drone technology into a valuable user-friendly tool for farmers.

The co-op said the new drone hardware and software it is looking for will solve critical issues for farmers. The prize-winning solution will limit the need for human involvement in the collection of high resolution field data, decrease the time needed to access crop imagery and improve the ability to make decisions based on field data.

The decision-making technology will help farmers better tailor their management to meet the specific needs of crops. It will lead to potential gains in water efficiency and crop yield while reducing fertilizer waste. Competitors will retain ownership of intellectual property contained in their proposal.

Competitors must submit written proposals along with videos, log files and other supporting information by Aug. 1.

Judges will determine three finalists, who be invited to demonstrate their solutions at a Federal Aviation Administration-approved test location. Performance at this event will be a main factor in determining the winner.

The second and third place winners will receive $5,000 each.

For more information, visit herox.com/loldrones.

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