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Podcast: IN∙FLIGHT Data Delivers Gold to Farmers

Farmers may not often find gold in their soil, but with precision data on moisture, plant health, herd strength, and more, agriculture-focused drone businesses hope to deliver information that is just like gold. Stay tuned to hear about the transformation taking place in the agriculture industry because of forward-thinking aerial photography companies like today’s guest.

IN∙FLIGHT Data - precision agricultureFarmers may not often find gold in their soil, but with precision data on moisture, plant health, herd strength, and more, agriculture-focused drone businesses hope to deliver information that is just like gold. Stay tuned to hear about the transformation taking place in the agriculture industry because of forward-thinking aerial photography companies like today’s guest.

DroneFutures.org: Hello there and welcome to SightLines, a talk show by DroneFutures.org in which we speak with the leaders in the drone sector to learn what’s on the horizon and how to make the most of this rapidly growing industry. As the agriculture landscape shifts there is a need for quality data that farmers can use to improve their performance and scalability and so today, we have Chris Healy, the founder of IN∙FLIGHT Data with us. He is a man who is looking to make aerial photography the new farmers’ almanac… perhaps. Welcome to SightLines and thank you for spending some time with us.

Chris Healy

Thank you for having me.

DroneFutures.org:

So, we all depend on agriculture for our daily bread, something it’s we buy into every single day and so it is a sector that is extremely important the world over. And yet it’s tougher and tougher to be a farmer in today’s market. So, how does your business serve farmers and how are you making it easier for them?

Chris Healy

We’re helping farmers overcome some of the challenges they are facing when it comes to scaling up their farms. Farms need to be large in order to be profitable, and with a large farm comes a lot of work. One of the things they do is they survey their crops and they spend a lot of time surveying their crops. Quite typically, a farmer will, in relationship to how much we spend, they will spend very little time actually going out into their field and pulling up a crop and looking at it and analyzing it and extrapolating that knowledge to the rest of their field. They might survey 1-2% of their field. We can survey 100% of their field, and that’s just not possible for a large farm to do. We’re helping them ensure that the money they are investing in their farm in terms of the inputs is going towards the best decision that is going to generate the best return of investment possible.

DroneFutures.org:

Okay, so help me we understand what would the average farmer be surveying (we know they are looking at only 2-3%) but what factors would they be measuring.

Chris Healy

They would be looking at how much moisture is in the soil in a particular location. They will be looking at how healthy the plant is in that particular location, how much stem development has occurred. They will be looking for any diseases or pests that might be present at that location. And then they would extrapolate that into their entire field and they would need to know how bad the weed infestation or how bad the pests in the field are. And that requires a lot of ground work.

DroneFutures.org:

Ok, so using drones you are able to get high above a field and then capture images that help them analyze the information on a broader scale?

Chris Healy

That is correct.

DroneFutures.org: So, what types of videos are you taking?

Chris Healy

We have a number of different payloads that we use to photograph or take video of their land. It ranges from a RGB camera, which is what is in everybody’s cellphones (a regular camera) all the way up to a high, very sensitive thermal imager. We have multi-band cameras that take our photographs at the same intervals as our regular cameras take and we layer all of this information together digitally to put the data for the grower.

DroneFutures.org:

Not being a technical person, I am having a hard time imagining how a big image of a whole bunch of grain heads can be analyzed to find out where there are problems. Could you help me understand how that works?

Chris Healy

So, we use a process called ortho-rectification, which takes a number of digital photographs, in this case it could be over a thousand photographs of one particular section of land and we digitally stich all those photographs together, so that it makes one picture. And that one picture is very high resolution, so we can zoom in and out of that picture to obtain different levels of information, whether we want to zoom in and look at the vegetation around a pond or we want to look at the entire section of land. We can use our computers to zoom in and out to look at different levels of granularity of that data.

DroneFutures.org:

With the an RGB camera, you are able to count the number of plants or you can see by the color their health. You know what I’m saying?

Chris Healy

Yeah, so plant healthiness is possible and it is done using GIS, where each photograph is geo-referenced, so we know exactly where that picture has been taken in space and we take many, many pictures of a particular location and we have a good idea of how many pictures are in a GPS location. Because we have that data, we can next port it into a GIS application, which analyzes each pixel of the picture. Given the properties of a particular pixel, it will tell us if there is a plant that’s existing there or not. And then the application would then count them all and would eventually tell you how many plants you had in your field.

DroneFutures.org:

And how does it know whether it is a healthy plant or not?

Chris Healy

The term healthy is confusing, because depending on what photograph or index you are looking at, is healthy or unhealthy. When you are looking at an NDVI index (Normalized Differential Vegetation Index), a healthy pixel or healthy cell will be shown as green, and an unhealthy will show up as red. And the data would range between 1 and -1, where 1 would be healthy and -1 would be very unhealthy.

DroneFutures.org:

So, there are obviously some fairly complex algorithms and software behind all of this that is analyzing it?

Chris Healy

Yes, the process that we use, ortho-rectification, is a complex mathematical process and it is done inside software. And, that allows us to do very precise measurements using photogrammetry and remote sensing applications.

DroneFutures.org:

Okay, is this standard software that a person doing agricultural survey has to buy, or is it something you have developed for your own business?

Chris Healy

So, our particular company (every company will be different, every company will have their own sets of processes and things that they have developed) uses a combination of in-house processes and applications as well as in-house workflow that we have developed, and that backstops custom software.

DroneFutures.org:

There is obviously room within this industry for people looking to work directly with businesses like yours to build custom software or to integrate it with existing software.

Chris Healy

Yes there is.

DroneFutures.org:

So, would you say that’s quite a huge need in terms of your personnel overall, or do you have more pilots than you have software developers?

Chris Healy

No, we have got full complement of both. At the end of the day, it’s all about the data because the drone technology will come and go. In 3 years’ time, we will be flying different drones than we are flying today, because the technology is growing by leaps and bounds. However, our customers still want their data, and so we have to have a competency in flying the drones, we definitely need people behind the scenes, like engineers and analysts and software developers to keep all of this stuff running and we have those particular competencies in house within our company.

DroneFutures.org:

So, may I ask how big is your team?

Chris Healy

We have 6 people in our team.

DroneFutures.org:

And you serve how big of a geographical area?

Chris Healy

Right now, our primary area of operation is Southern Alberta. However, we are licensed to fly in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Arctic.

DroneFutures.org:

The Arctic, that’s interesting. Have you had many projects up there?

Chris Healy

Well, yes actually. Global warming is melting the polar ice caps, and that is opening up shipping lanes. So there are new shipping lanes in very sensitive environmental areas that exist up there, and so a lot of it is being monitored. The problem is that there is more traffic than there is capacity, so there is a niche for people who are into that sort of application to work in the Arctic.

DroneFutures.org:

Can you describe a little more about the kind of data you would be collecting there?

Chris Healy

In the Arctic?

DroneFutures.org:

Yeah.

Chris Healy

Well, a lot of the same stuff. For example, we did a liaison with a government organization here that manages parks and they use drones for the exact same method and reason that we are using them. They want to measure to see how healthy their parks are. So in Alberta and British Columbia, we’ve had a pine beetle infestation for a few years. And when you want to get localized data, it’s very difficult to go in and fly manned aircraft at low levels of mountainous regions. Perfect for drones.

DroneFutures.org:

So you’re looking at wildlife patterns, health of ecosystems, snow pack, that sort of thing?

Chris Healy

No, that’s really not our area of expertise. We use on the agronomy side and as it relates to the analysis of reflective—however I mean, drones can be used for all of those things.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. Fair enough. So getting back to the agriculture sector. It sounds like you’re focusing mostly in crop development, do you also provide services for ranchers?

Chris Healy

So yes, one focus of our company is certainly on the agriculture side. The other side is land management. And for example, we can fly over a feed lot and tell you how many hot cows sit in the feed lot and in which particular lot they are. That would be very helpful for a veterinarian in the feed lot who’s trying to determine which cows he should go and inspect.

DroneFutures.org:

Interesting. So it will be able to tell you which ones have like a fever?

Chris Healy

Which ones are hotter than the rest of them yes.

DroneFutures.org:

Very cool. Okay.

Chris Healy

It is cool. And using that information we can now count which ones are of a certain temperature.

DroneFutures.org:

To see if there’s an infection spreading through the herd or whatever

Chris Healy

You got it.

DroneFutures.org:

Interesting. What other ways do ranchers use drone aerial photography or videography?

Chris Healy

One that’s quite popular is doing tillage and drainage for their property. So you got water that’s pooling up on your land and you don’t want it there for example if you’re a farmer and that’s prime cropland; or it’s interrupting your herd or what have you. We can measure where water is collecting in your land quite accurately. And you would then use that information to plan out how you would put in your tillage and drainage through your land. So instead of you just running out into your quarter section with a shovel and hoping that you got it right, you can plan using an elevation map and a water sink map, exactly how you want to drain all of that water off of your land.

DroneFutures.org:

It sounds to me like in order to do this kind of business you almost need to have a degree in ag science.

Chris Healy

It helps. It certainly helps.

DroneFutures.org:

Is that one of your particular specialties? Or do you have somebody on your team who knows a lot about that?

Chris Healy

I do not have an ag certification myself. My background is in information technology, business process, and technology integration. However, we do have people on our team that do specialize in that. Now having said that, my family has been farming for five generations.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. So it’s kind of in your blood.

Chris Healy

Sort of. I never chose to go down the farming side. But I can certainly use my family as a wealth of information.

DroneFutures.org:

Yeah I’m sure. Now can you talk to me a little bit about the hardware that you use? You have a particular style of drone that you prefer, is that correct?

Chris Healy

For the agricultural analysis maps, yes. We prefer a fixed wing set of hardware over a multirotor set of hardware—and that’s strictly for efficiency’s sake. However, we do have multirotors as well and we use the multirotors for doing things vertical—so inspections of silos, bridges, towers, electrical poles, those sorts of things that might be on their property; we would use the multirotor for doing that. But to cover a large, wide area, the multirotor’s just not efficient enough; and so we switched to a fixed wing for that.

DroneFutures.org:

In terms of its battery life?

Chris Healy

In terms of battery life and also in—typically the multirotor batteries will last 12-20 minutes give or take what size battery you’re using; you just can’t fly very far on a 12 minute battery. Whereas on a fixed wing battery, we can fly for almost an hour. And we don’t have to have the motor on the entire time because we can glide. So it’s just more efficient in terms of using that battery charger.

DroneFutures.org:

It sounds like you’ve got a good suite of equipment that you draw from depending on the job?

Chris Healy

Yes we do.

DroneFutures.org:

Would I be correct in assuming that you didn’t start with having multiple pieces of equipment that you sort of build that up over time?

Chris Healy

Yes, it built up over time. As we saw a need or an opportunity in one area, then we would grow to fill that particular area. We started in the multirotor space. It just became very apparent that it wasn’t efficient enough.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. Okay. So how long have you been around?

Chris Healy

So the idea for the company started almost 2 years ago. The company itself was incorporated at the tail end of 2014.

IN∙FLIGHT Data

DroneFutures.org:

And what kind of growth have you seen over the past year and a half or so since you’ve been operating?

Chris Healy

In the past year and a half, we’ve seen a ton of growth. We are now the preferred data supplier to a very large agricultural company here in Canada.

DroneFutures.org: So are you anticipating a similar trajectory in years to come?

Chris Healy

We are. That’s the plan. We’ve received nothing but positive feedback from every single person we’ve talked to. I had one farmer come up to me and tell me that I might as well have handed him gold; that’s how valuable that report was to him.

DroneFutures.org:

Okay. Is there other similar types of feedback you’re getting from farmers? Is there a particular type of service that you provide that is really popular?

Chris Healy

We don’t really have a suite of services. We sign on for a grower for the growing season to provide them the data that they require. So depending on the types of information that grower might need, we can scale up or down and go across our payloads to give them the information they’re looking for—or to go and collect the type of data that they’re looking for. So for example, right now we’re doing a lot of NDVI analysis. We’re starting to get some stand development; 3 or 4 leaves are out of the ground. We can very clearly see vegetation versus soil in the pictures. So they want to know: how healthy are my seedlings? How much inputs do I need to get into these things?

Conversely, because there’s still 50% soil cover, the NDVI maps that we’re getting back are also reflecting soil moisture. So at a very key point in the growing cycle, they want to know: how much moisture is in my soil and how healthy are my plants? So we’re doing a lot of NDVI stuff right now.

In about a month and a half from now, we’ll probably switch over to a thermal imager because they’ll want to know: how much water is in my plants, not how much water is in the soil? And so we would use the thermal imager to go and capture that information. At the end of the season, they might want to start thinking about their tillage and drainage and then we would fly the RGB camera at the end of the season once all the crops have been taken down, so that we can get a bare earth analysis of their land. So depending on the time of year and what the grower is looking for, we’ll fine tune that for them.

DroneFutures.org:

So did you find that this, I’m going to call it a retainer style contract with the farmers, is that something that they requested, because they wanted your services all throughout the season, or is that something you offered right from the beginning?

Chris Healy

We’ve offered the all-season-long-relationship with them, we’ve offered that since the beginning. Because we realized very quickly that—and this was feedback from my family that again, I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have my family’s background in farming—we realized very quickly that they want to see how their land changes over time. It’s called temporal analysis. And that is so incredibly valuable for them because not only can they use the information we’re providing them to make decisions. They can then use it as a record of their decisions to go back and see what it was like when they made those decisions. This is helping them improve their yields. This is why we do all of this, is so that the farmers improve their yields, because that’s money in their pockets.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. Those benefits are pretty obvious. Can you talk to whether using drones for photography or videography helped with sustainability in general in agriculture?

Chris Healy

Sustainability. Well, I’ll give you an example. Fires. It’ll be about a month ago now, we were asked to go and do a forensic analysis. There was a wildfire that had occurred on a famer’s land and went across two sections of land. And he wanted to know: first of all, how did it affect my land? And how big was it? Two very basic, but yet very important pieces of information that he needs to sustain his land.

And so we were able to scan his land using a number of different payloads. And first of all, tell him exactly—to 3 decimal points—how big the fire was, which he then would use to file his insurance claim. And since they’ve got very accurate aerial data, it’s hard to dispute because it’s objective.

And second, how did the fire change his land? Well, where the fire had occurred actually improved his land. Which most of us know, when a forest has a forest fire, the forest eventually regrows back healthier and more vibrant than it was before. Well that’s exactly what happened to his land in this example. And he had a very colorful picture to show him that the area of the burn scar is bright green, and all the rest of the land around it is bright red.

IN∙FLIGHT Data Wildfire Multispectral Image

The multispectral image is the result of an ortho-mosaic process incorporating 5880 images, for a resolution of about 2.7 cm/pixel. This index image is of a wildfire that occurred about a month ago. The total area is 790.70 ac. / 320 ha.

DroneFutures.org:

And does knowing the moisture levels or health of the plants or prevalence of weeds or pests help farmers use for instance, fertilizers, or pest controls, or irrigation more conservatively?

Chris Healy

Absolutely. One of the goals of what we’re trying to do is work toward this idea of variable rate application, or precision farming, where we know how healthy the land is. And so if we can feed that information into the tractor, as the tractor goes over that section of land it would adjust the nozzles on the tractor up or down to reflect how much input should be going into that land. And so this is an exploding area in agriculture right now. And one of the pioneers in this area is John Deere—they’ve been in the GPS world for quite a while. I believe it was Kansas State University did a study on this and showed that variable rate application can reduce crop inputs by 25-40%. That’s a lot.

DroneFutures.org:

Wow. So they’re already using this precision method with the data flowing into the tractors as they go?

Chris Healy

Yes and that’s one of the services we offer to our clients. So if you’ve got a GPS tractor, we can feed your data to plug right into your tractor.

DroneFutures.org: Now I know data is a bit of an issue in terms of security. How have you had to address that in order to waylay the fears of your clients?

Chris Healy

Fairly simply, we don’t own any data. We don’t house any data. We don’t possess any data. Once we’re finished with it, we delete it. Or if you’d like a copy of it, we’ll give it to you.

IN∙FLIGHT Data Wildfire NDVI Image

In the NDVI image, the green areas are healthier than the red areas, and so you can see how the fire drastically improved the health of the land. Here we can clearly see the burn scar without any filters or indexing, which is 272.612 acres. This area value was used in the landowner’s insurance claim.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. Do you just give them—transfer the data over to their computer if they want it, and then they can use it for their John Deere tractors or whatever other purpose they want?

Chris Healy

Correct. Just on that note, there isn’t any personal identifying information we collect. There isn’t any confidential or sensitive information that we’re collecting other than how that farmer feels about the yield that they might have in their field. So in terms of meeting government privacy requirements, we absolutely meet those requirements.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. Now how about other regulations that govern where you can take pictures and videos, has that made your business more difficult?

Chris Healy

Up here in Canada, all UAV operations is governed by Transport Canada. And Transport Canada issues licenses in the form of what’s called an SFOC, which stands for a special flight operator certificate. And every operator must apply to Transport Canada to obtain one of these certificates before they can fly commercially.

DroneFutures.org:

Okay. And how is that process?

Chris Healy

That process is quite strict. However, it’s thoughtful. The rest of the aviation world views UAV operators as a massive risk, both UAV operators, both recreationally and commercially. We are a risk. And so in order to properly integrate UAV operators into a national airspace system, it needs to be done in a thoughtful manner. It’s been our experience that while the process itself is quite long, at the end of the day, they want to know that we’re going to operate our equipment safely and that we’re going to be held to the same safety standard as air passenger carriers.

DroneFutures.org:

And so it’s in your best interests to comply with those?

Chris Healy

It’s in our best interests to comply because if something was to happen, you’d be in a lot of trouble.

I mean, manned aircraft can’t see us. Even if they’re 200 feet away and they’ve got just a last minute to make a roll to the left. That’s a huge risk and we can’t, as aviators, allow that risk to happen. We can’t put other people’s lives in danger. We might think we’re not doing it just by flying around in a park, but some people will take their drone up to a 1000 feet. There are manned aircraft at a 1000 feet that you can’t see. So it’s in everyone’s interest too It’s just like driving a car—if you want to drive a car, you’ve got to go get a driver’s license.

DroneFutures.org:

Right. So it sounds like as the district develops and if regulations become tighter over time in order to ensure safety, that’s just not something you’ll be opposed to?

Chris Healy

There’s a balance to walk between making the process to obtain the certificates and the amount of time that it takes to get those approved. So it does take some time for this to happen. I’m sure they’ll be the first people to admit that they’ve been overwhelmed with the number of people who are applying for these certificates, which is why it takes so long, but we wouldn’t want to see them delay the process unnecessarily, because that impacts our ability to do business.

The difference between us flying at 300 feet and flying at 400 feet could be an hour of flight time a day to us. And so, in order to fly at 400 feet, you need to apply and get special permission to do that. And if it’s going to take a year and half to apply to get it, I may have already started losing customers by then. So there needs to be some speed with which they move, but at all times, we should always be mindful of the safety factor.

DroneFutures.org:

The regulations aside, do you have any predictions as to where the industry or your business is going to be in the next five years?

Chris Healy

In the next five years, I think that drones will be a part of our vocabulary, much in the way that in the mid-2000s Blackberry became a part of our vocabulary. They will be as ubiquitous as cell phones are.

DroneFutures.org:

All right. And do you think that the farmer will be able to throw out his almanac?

Chris Healy

No, I think there’s still a place for the almanac. The almanac is basically, a database before databases were ever invented. And so there’s always going to be a need for knowledge, and there will always be a need for information. And so I see us simply being another pillar underneath the house that holds up the family farm by providing them information to make their decisions.

DroneFutures.org:

Alright. That sounds like a great note to end on. Thanks Chris for talking with us today. You can find Chris at IN∙FLIGHT Data or inflightdata.ca. And thank you for joining us here at DroneFutures.org for SightLines, where we discuss the future of the drone industry at home and around the world. Thanks again!

Chris Healy

Thank you!

 

Don’t forget to check out IN∙FLIGHT Data at next month’s DroneFest which will be taking place in Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.

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