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Eyes in the sky aid scouting

Eyes in the sky aid scouting
Why agronomists like UAVs

Christy Kettler isn't a pilot. But she got a pilot's view of crop fields she was scouting this summer. Given near-record rainfall and ponding, this was a summer when an aerial view helped pick up patterns that might be tough to figure out walking the field.

"One thing I learned as an intern and a crop scout is that every field is different," Kettler says. The Purdue University junior interned for Beck's. Her duties included scouting fields and writing weekly scouting summaries. Her reports were published on and through a Beck's email newsletter,  

Christy Kettler demonstrates how to launch a quad-copter UAV used to scout fields for differences in growth patterns

Kettler worked with two sales managers, Ben Grimme and Kris Johnson, and two Beck's agronomists, Denny Cobb and Steve Gauck.

One scouting tool she experimented with was a UAV quadcopter. Jim Love, who manages UAVs for Beck's, says he put models designed for scouting in the hands of agronomists so they could learn what it was like to fly these machines. He also wanted them to become acquainted with what they could learn from the air that they couldn't see on the ground.

Kettler experimented with the Typhoon Q500+ from Yuneec. This quad-copter is a recent entry on the market, Love says. She operated it manually and could see pictures during flight from the 1080 HD camera mounted on board.

This model sells for around $1,200 to $1,500, Love says. At this point output from the camera can't be stitched together to form whole-field images as it can with some other models.

"It's a scouting tool," Kettler says. "I could see patterns in the field by looking into the screen. I was seeing what the camera saw.

"Another thing I learned was that even within a field, there can be differences, especially in a year like this. Soil types can make a big difference in the crop and in what you see form the air."

One popular question Kettler hears is whether the quadcopter can geo-reference spots in the field where she sees something she wants to walk in the field to check. In other words, can she mark a spot with GPS coordinates so she knows exactly where to walk to check what looked different from the air?

You can't do that with this model, at least not yet, she replies. However, there are other tools she can use to pinpoint the general area where she needs to walk.

The process is called ground-truthing. The camera on the UAV shows where spots are different, but it can't tell you why they're different. You may have theories, but the only way to know for sure is to walk to the spot and check for yourself, Kettler concludes. 

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