The buzz about hemp has a range of farmers who may have long been row crop producers looking to diversify. But tracking hemp isn’t like corn or soybeans, where experienced eyes can see problems quickly. Knowing what’s going on in that hemp field may require a higher-level view — really higher.
“Growers want to maximize yield, and crop insurers want to minimize risk,” notes Kevin Lang, general manager, PrecisionHawk. “You want to know how many plants are in the field, is the size consistent, and how is plant health?”
That’s possible with aerial imagery, and it’s an area PrecisionHawk started in a few years ago; but the company had moved its focus. In the early days, PrecisionHawk was known for its fixed-wing airships that could be programmed to gather a lot of high-resolution imagery relatively quickly. Lang notes that the company is no longer making drone hardware.
“We’ve changed as a company,” he says. “We are really focused on software and analytics in the agriculture business. In May, we released PrecisionAnalytics Agriculture, a platform designed for agriculture professionals.” The company is working in a range of industries including row crops, tree crops, citrus, apples, and even tobacco and hemp.
“The way our platform is set up now, we’re really working with machine learning-based algorithms and dynamic tools that let customers more quickly create field boundaries; and get on-demand, plant-level statistics,” he says.
And that brings Lang to hemp, which may be the next high-value crop for agriculture now that USDA has promulgated its latest rules after approval of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill. “Hemp offers a great use case for our software, and we’re working with a different type of grower raising hemp,” he says. “Many used to be tobacco farmers, and there are other large companies involved, too.”
The agronomy of hemp
Farmers raising hemp need more information about plant health sooner, in order to take remedial actions. With drone imagery, the producer can measure the health of the field and spot stress earlier. For a plant where flower health and vegetative output is important, “seeing” those crop changes is valuable, too.
One area where aerial imagery can make a difference is identifying male versus female plants. Lang explains that the flowers from females are important to hemp output.
“That’s one of the more challenging areas of aerial imagery,” he says. “We’re working on ways longer term to identify those plants to better estimate crop yield for key components.”
Plant counts and biomass are also important — and easy to measure from the air. Vegetative health index maps can measure biomass, and plant counts are more important with hemp, as farmers look to estimate returns.
For PrecisionHawk, the refocus to software has also brought more options. Lang explains that the company may have started with drones, but today can use aerial imagery for analysis from most any source — drone, airplane or satellite. “We’re working to provide affordable aerial intelligence,” he says.
As that evolves, there will be more information available. Lang notes there’s work with hyperspectral sensors now to explore the possibility of measuring the presence, and amount, of tetrahydrocannabidol (THC, the psychoactive cannabis component that gives the “high” sensation) in a plant. For hemp, that’s important from a regulatory standpoint. For hemp’s more potent cannabis cousin, that’s got value in states where raising the narcotic version of the plant is legal.
In addition, those high-end sensors may help identify plant stress and yield impacts sooner than in the past. “They can see the stresses the human eye cannot,” he says. “There’s work to explore stress and correlate that to a specific disease in the plant.”
Hemp is a higher-value crop, and it often promises multifold returns over the row crops many experimenters currently raise. Whether that income will remain high is yet to be seen, but high-end aerial imagery analysis can help manage in-season crop health, and output, for those that raise the crop.
In addition, tracking the crop through the season will have value in case there’s a disaster that wipes out the crop. Having the information on plant count — and crop health — may be useful to an insurance adjuster, Lang says.
The hemp market continues to evolve. Top-level data on agronomy, plant health and output will have value. PrecisionHawk is working to support that industry. Learn more at precisionhawk.com.