Data collection from above; getting the right stuff from flight

After flying drones for a few years, I was asked to speak at various conferences.

Most of these are professional and proper affairs in which people sit quietly to listen, applaud the speaker politely, and ask thoughtful questions afterward.

However, at one memorable conference at which there were people representing drones, manned aerial systems and satellite systems, it wasn’t so polite or professional.

I was on a panel made up of people representing each imagery platform. Each panelist gave a presentation on the advantages and use of their chosen imagery platform.

I spoke specifically about the use of drones in agriculture. During my presentation, there were comments from several people in the audience that could be best called heckling.

As an experienced teacher, good-natured heckling from students is common and easy to deal with. But this was the first and only time I had ever been heckled as a speaker at a conference.

I continued and ignored the comments, mainly out of surprise. The next speaker, who also talked about drones, was not so surprised nor as quiet.

Escalation of comments between the hecklers and the speaker led to full-blown arguments; not something I had ever seen at a conference or seen since.

People are passionate about their imagery. I understand that all of these people’s livelihoods depend on their chosen technology and therefore they are defending it.

I still meet people on a regular basis that believe their technology is the best and are not afraid to defend it.

One gentleman that I work with believes that satellites are the best way to capture imagery for ag producers. He is literally a rocket scientist, spending much of his working life at NASA.

He has worked with imagery satellites for years and has developed a software for analyzing satellite imagery that will estimate nutrient needs and irrigation problems.

He believes that the large area that satellites cover and the number of satellites that are available are making satellite imagery cheaper than anything else available.

A new satellite constellation is being placed into orbit that will provide daily images in a wide range of visible and invisible light wavelengths. According to him, satellite imagery is what all growers should use.

Another gentleman owns a manned aerial imagery service and has been working with multispectral sensors and cameras for years. He defends the use of manned flights over unmanned flights or satellites.

He believes he can provide imagery cheaper than drones and faster than satellites. He sees no need for the higher resolution that drones provide, saying his imagery is as detailed as the grower needs. Imagery from manned aerial flights is what growers should be using.

A third gentleman has a company that sells and flies rotor drones. He has been providing imagery services, but also uses drones for application of crop protection products.

He believes that drones give his customers the flexibility and immediacy needed by some growers. If they want an image now or need to spray a crop product now, the drone can be up in the air within a few minutes.

The high resolution of one inch ground sampling distance is valuable for plant populations, specific locations of stressed plants or assessment of irrigation lines. Imagery from drones is what growers should be using, he maintains.

Since I speak and teach about drones, it seems to people that I am a proponent of drones. Yes, that is correct, but I am also a proponent of satellite imagery and manned flights as well.

Actually, I am a proponent of imagery. The imagery, whether it is infrared, NIR, LIDAR or thermal, is the important part of any system regardless of the platform. The platform should be considered when a grower has specific needs for resolution, availability and cost.

Each system has its specific advantages and the grower should consider all three as tools when making a choice. The thing to remember is that the imagery is the important part and not to be tethered to any one system.

You have a choice to make precision happen.

Terry A. Brase is an agriculture consultant, precision agriculture educator and author. BrASE LLC. Contact him at

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