GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A swarm of bees outfitted with cameras descending on a field of corn might be part of the future of agricultural data collection.
The bees in this case aren’t insects but rather eBees, a type of fixed-wing drone manufactured by senseFly and sold regionally by RDO Equipment. The drone are used to collect data that can be analyzed and used to create maps, isolate problem areas in crops and track plant stand counts.
A challenge that remains in the agricultural drone industry, as well as many segments of the overall drone industry, is taking collected data and turning it into usable and understandable information for customers.
“That’s really where I think the next big gap in the industry is. How do we make that data usable and give the end user the decision points they need in order to make their project work?” said Adam Gilbertson, general manager of RDO Integrated Controls’ northern division.
RDO has integrated drone products into the controls division of its operation, a segment that also includes 3-D modeling, GPS and other technology services. The company sells platforms from senseFly and Sentera and offers some training on drone operation, but leaves the data collection and analysis to its customers.
RDO staff highlighted the company’s research into using drones earlier this month at Drone Biz, a monthly event held in Grand Forks that focuses on the unmanned aircraft industry. One method known as swarming required staff to synchronize flight paths for 10 eBees and send them out to survey a field.
“We flew 125 acres in seven minutes — which is pretty exciting for us considering normally it takes a lot longer than that — and really looked at how can we scale this technology up to the next level,” Gilbertson said.
The flights took place in October near Billings, Mont. Ten customers received training on flying the eBees and participated in the experiment. One computer managed the drones’ paths through the air, but Gilbertson noted there were some kinks to work out.
“There are certainly a couple of gaps that we noticed,” he said. “One, you have to make darn sure the settings are exactly the same when you’re trying to stitch data exactly together the same way so when you have 10 eBees, they have to be exactly aligned. We learned the hard way a couple of times that there was some work to do.”
In addition to swarming, RDO is exploring using drones to improve data collected for land surveying. eBee drones were used to collect imagery to generate topographical data of a solar site this past year near Cedar City, Utah.
The project was a collaboration among RDO, Mortenson Construction and SunEdison, a renewable energy company.
“What they wanted to figure out is how can we do some of our traditional survey work in a new project quicker, gather more data, have more usable product at the end of the process and not have to continue to go back to the field?” Gilbertson said.
As part of the project, the team conducted five flights with a duration of 36 minutes that each covered about 350 acres. Over the course of the flights, about 2 billion data points were created — a gain of 300 times the normal graphical density for the survey data.
Accuracy of the data saw an improvement of 84 percent and the program took 40 hours let time to execute compared to traditional methods. Overall, the project cost $1,500 — savings about $8,500.
“I feel confident there are significant cost savings to be had,” Gilbertson said of using drones.