By Dan Rankin
President of Palmerston’s Ag Business & Crop Inc. Felix Weber has never been satisfied with the amount of information at his disposal. Since starting to farm in 1986, he has always worked hard to grow his business. Then, when he became a consultant, he was always looking for other tools to get more data about farmers’ fields so they could manage them more economically.
Around 2008, he was considering using satellite imagery to gather information about fields, but found it didn’t quite live up to his expectations. “For Ontario fields with the cloud cover and so on, the satellite imagery didn’t work,” he said, adding that sometimes he would be provided images that showed the field at the wrong time of year. “They have more satellites now, but you still don’t have control over that. It wasn’t the right tool for me.”
So he kept looking, and that’s when he found unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. “Most of them you’ve got to do the manual, RC controls,” he said. “I’m not an RC controller. It had to be simple and easy and user friendly to work with.”
That’s what drew him to the UAVs created by the Swiss company senseFly. Today, Ag Business & Crop Inc. is the sole national dealer in Canada for senseFly’s agricultural drones.
The eBee Ag is a fixed-wing autonomous drone that comes with flight-planning and image processing software, an infrared camera and other optional cameras depending on the user’s goals. It has a flight time of up to 45 minutes, which allows it to cover an area of up to 250-300 acres (10-12 sq. km), at an altitude of 400 ft. (122 m), depending on wind resistance. According to a promotional video for the device, which sells for around $30,000 including UAV training, the eBee Ag lets you “scout your crops, analyze plant health, create prescriptions and begin treatment all on the same day.”
Weber is quick to admit, “You can get cheaper UAVs or quad-copters.” But to him, it’s all a question of what your ultimate goal is. “If you want good quality, professional data back, options with cameras, and you look at the return rather than the cost, you’re probably going to buy something that is useful that brings you value back,” he said. “If you buy a $1,000-$2,000 quad-copter, can you mosaic those images together? Or is it just a movie? What is it really going to do? How much area can you map in one flight? Do you want to have a geo-referenced image you can convert into a map later and actually make decisions from it?”
Ag Business & Crop Inc. also provides training towards acquiring a Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada, which is needed for flying a UAV of any size for any other use than recreationally.
Weber said he’s seen clients save thousands of dollars thanks to the information provided by the eBee drones. “Not every flight is going to make you a huge amount of money,” he said. “Some flights are just more to confirm or to know where in the field and how big an affected area in the crop is. It may be information you’re going to use down the road afterwards, but it’s thousands of dollars.”
He related a story from two years ago, when a farmer called to let him know they were planning on “working under a field of winter wheat and planting corn instead.” But, they invited him to come by with his drone first to see what percentage of winter wheat would have been worth keeping.
“I showed them the data and they kept that wheat field in,” he said. “They kept it, and it was a very wet year. A lot of the later-planted corn at that time was low bushel weight. They didn’t have to replant or cultivate. Because it wasn’t replanted, they had an over-average crop in this field. They could manage the fertilizer a little bit different. They knew where the higher density areas were, so that means they could spray fungicide at a rate based on the density of the crop, and add nitrogen based on the density of the crop. When you look at all those things with one flight, it starts to pay fairly quickly to do something like that. I think it saves a huge amount for many of my clients.”
A recent YouTube video posted by the business, titled “Precision Agriculture Drones – Ag Business and Crop,” demonstrates the use of the eBee fixed-wing drone, as well as their quad-copter and automated soil sampling devices by the Danish-based Wintex. Ag Business & Crop Inc. is also the exclusive Canadian dealer of Wintex’s soil sampler.
The automated soil sampler, which starts around $10,000, can be mounted to an ATV, pickup truck or other vehicle. They provide consistent automatic sampling, and can be beneficial when used in tandem with the UAVs, Weber said.
“The depth control is automated, and you collect the data with GPS,” Weber said. This provides, “better and more precise information about what’s going on in the field, instead of just doing it randomly.”
“It’s repeatable from one year of sampling to the next,” he said. “Then the UAV comes in afterwards to monitor the crop during the season.”
Weber said there has been interest across the country in the products, and said they count McCain Foods as a client.
For more information, call 519-343-5454, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.