A UAV helicopter (unmanned aerial vehicle) bouncing a pulsating laser beam off the Earth’s surface can produce a topographical field map with sub-one-inch accuracy.
The result is a highly precise drainage map.
The system is called LIDAR, standing for Light Detection and Ranging. Until recently, it was only affordable in the realm of geoscience researchers.
However, when costs fell LIDAR became within reach of agronomists and engineers in agriculture.
In the drainage business, the term “best performance” no longer means moving the greatest volume of dirt. Just the opposite, in fact.
In today’s world, “best performance” means moving the least amount of dirt to move the greatest volume of water. Moving dirt costs money. The object is to obtain drainage goals without moving extra soil.
This “best performance” depends on the quality of the topographical map, according to Steve Gillis, with Rocky Mountain Equipment in Moosomin, Sask.
Gillis is using LIDAR to develop drainage plans for prairie farmers. He works with Kevin Hruska at Bridgeview Manufacturing in applying Trimble LIDAR software that will enable Bridgeview’s Transformer ditcher operators to extract top performance from their machines.
“We use a LIDAR scanner mounted on a drone helicopter to get a laser scan of the surface, with sub one-inch accuracy,” explains Gillis.
“With the map, you go into a field with your Transformer and you know exactly where to go with your ditch and exactly what to do, down to the inch. As opposed to trying to figure it out once you’re out there in the field.”
Hruska concedes there are a lot of variables to manipulate if the operator expects to get the most out of his Transformer. That’s why Hruska and Gillis are working together on the topographic mapping project.
Gillis explains: “We take the LIDAR data and input that to your desktop computer. We can generate the actual lines you should follow. We put it into a Trimble 2050 display, using a program called WM-Drain.”
Trimble says their WM-Drain farm drainage solution is a concept-to-completion system that walks farmers through the survey, analysis, design, installation and mapping steps of surface and subsurface drainage. It ensures optimal 3D drain placement.
Gillis adds that the Rocky Mountain LIDAR he works with is not Trimble-specific. He can output the maps in any format, including Topcon and John Deere.
“WM-Drain allows you to follow the lines in the field. It raises and lowers the cutting edge of your Transformer. We’re not working on wing control yet. We’re just doing depth control right now. I have heard of a few ways to control the wings, but I haven’t actually seen them.
“On Case, New Holland and John Deere, you can only automate the first and the third hydraulics, so you would not be able to automate the centre and both wings unless you had some way to split the signal. It’s up to the operator to control the wings manually, and that’s a matter of experience.
“Most of the guys I’ve been working with take their wings and fold them in a little bit. They use the Transformer flat blade to do a pass or two and make nice smooth ditch bottom, then they’ll pull the wings up and use them for feathering and contouring the edges. You don’t use the wings too much while you’re actually cutting. So I don’t think you’d gain much by automating the wings.
“Flat country is a different story. You’d use your wings in potato and vegetable country and flat land where you’re just levelling, trimming down little high spots and filling in small depressions.”
Gillis says the Pulldozer Transformer can serve the same purpose as a scraper to some degree. It’s a matter of filling the blade and pulling the dirt along to the destination.
Using the in-cab display, the operator manually sets the blade depth so it’s not picking up new dirt and it’s not spilling over the dirt already captured.
Although there are other systems capable of running the Pulldozer Transformer, Gillis says LIDAR is the most accurate. LIDAR for agriculture is new. He says that until now, you’d be looking at a $20,000 to $30,000 mobilization fee up front if you wanted a LIDAR field survey.
“The price point has been too high for agriculture. We’ve been able to lower the cost and make it viable for farmers because our in-house geomatics team also works in gas and oil exploration, construction, natural resources, defense and those related fields.
“Most other people would probably buy one of the commercially available drones, then figure out how to install their payload. Our team did the opposite. They looked at what was available and decided they needed something better. So they took the LIDAR package and designed their own helicopter around that package.
“It’s totally designed and built in-house. It’s a large, very capable drone that carries a 25-pound payload, which we need to carry the LIDAR equipment. It’s about eight feet long, weighs about 75 pounds and has a two-stroke gas engine. We can take it out to a farm and produce highly accurate elevation maps for $6 per acre. That gives you the map, the data and a drainage analysis.”
From that point, the client can proceed on his own or Rocky Mountain can continue in building the prescription map. If the farmer wants to do it on his own, the necessary desktop software package costs US$3,000.
Gillis adds that his team doesn’t need a 10,000-acre project to mobilize the system.
The $6 cost holds, even if it’s just for a couple quarters.
If there are flooded fields because of mid-summer rain, Gillis and his crew can still do a LIDAR survey of the target while water is at the peak using a special drone boat equipped with a bathymetric sonar system, which uses green wavelengths to penetrate the water surface.
The bathymetric system lets them chart the floor of the potholes and sloughs to document water depth and calculate water volume. Having real time data on acre-feet of water volume while field is still flooded can simplify the process of building a drainage plan.
Gillis says other elevation measurement systems use photogrammity, a process that takes hundreds of aerial photos and stitches them together to build a 3D image.
Photogrammity is less accurate than LIDAR and cannot penetrate a crop canopy, which LIDAR can do. If the LIDAR laser beam can shoot through the leaves and find any soil, it can create a topographic map, meaning it can be used in more conditions and in more seasons of the year.
However, the laser does not shoot through snow.
For more information, contact Steve Gillis at 306-434-8509.
The Bridgeview Transformer earned its name because it smoothly transforms from transit mode, to scraper, to road-crown grader, to ditcher or many other machines the operator envisions.
“A key feature of the Pulldozer Transformer model is it can build the different kinds of shapes and ditches you want to achieve,” says Kevin Hruska, owner of Bridgeview Manufacturing at the eastern Saskatchewan town of Gerald.
“If you move the wings forward, you can contour a ditch. By moving the wings back past the centre, you can crown a road or crown a back slope.
“The axle telescopes in and out hydraulically, so you can set whatever track width you need to suit a particular job.”
He said when the machine is set for a wide track width, it gives it stability, which makes the cuts more accurate.
“If it’s really wet and mucky, which it often is when you’re ditching, it’ll come free on one side of the blade and not the other and it’ll want to lurch down. If your axles are set wider, it holds the machine stable so your blade still gives you the angles you want,” said Hruska.
When working extra hard or rocky soil, the operator can move the wings forward to bring them slightly up. That creates more cutting ability because the machine is no longer cutting across the full width. The operator has now engaged only the six-foot-wide centre section. Hruska says that is the setup you want if you are gouging into hard ground.
“It replaces a scraper unless you’re digging major ditches. If you simply want to improve existing fields, moving dirt from point A to point B, the Transformer does it better than any other machine I know of.
“We can drag over 20 cubic yards of dirt. And we manipulate stones. You can gather up stones just like you’re sweeping up gravel on your shop floor with a scoop shovel. Drag them over to your stone piles or drag them into a pothole and cover them up with dirt.
“It’s a complicated machine to operate. I guess that’s a drawback. It takes a little more skill than just operating a scraper. But once you have the hang of it, you can leave the ditch so it’s seed-ready.”
Hruska says a number of different control program have been installed on Transformers. He recommends Water Management from KNR Ag Sales at Brunkild, Sask.
As well, Steve Gillis with Rocky Mountain Equipment, has in-stalled his LIDAR control system on several Transformers. Gillis also handles the water management program on Hruska’s 45,000 acre family farm at Gerald.
Hruska said the Transformer can also help ease safe road travel concerns because it folds up to less than 14 feet and can do so while in motion with operator controls from the cab.
“That’s the whole benefit, the way it transforms from one shape to another. Everyone who owns a regular Pulldozer wants to trade up to the Transformer model.
“In just two years, we’ve sold a lot of these things all around the globe. It’s gradually taking the place of the Pulldozer.”
The 18-foot Transformer needs a 250 h.p. tractor and carries a list price of $110,000. The 24-foot model needs 400 h.p. and carries a list price of $132,000.