Traveling through Mississippi from the hill country down to the Delta recently, I passed an oxbow lake outside of Tchula, and spotted an American bald eagle.
The massive bird was perched on a tree limb 40 feet off the ground, not more than 100 yards from me. I attached my 55-250 mm lens and clicked off a few frames. It didn’t move. I opened the truck door and began walking toward it, stopping every few steps to click off a few more.
As I stared through my camera at our nation’s national emblem and mascot, it turned its head to get a look at this interloper. I took one step too many and it launched from the tree, soaring down toward the water, its massive wings spread as it gained speed, flying to the other side of the lake in seconds.
I could not get the look of its eyes out of my mind, so I did a little research. An eagle’s eyes are large in proportion to its head and angled 30 degrees away from the center of its face, giving it a greater field of view. Their eyes also have a million light-sensitive cells per square millimeter of retina — five times more than a human’s.
Later that afternoon I saw someone flying a drone with a camera attached. I wondered how advanced drone cameras are becoming so I spoke with Bobby Vick, director of agriculture, PrecisionHawk.
He explained, like cell phone cameras, drone cameras have seen recent advances from small sensors with 10 or 12 megapixels, to sensors with 20 megapixels or higher, which allow farmers to see parts of their fields down to sub-inch resolution, even when flown from 400 feet.
These technology improvements bring smaller objects into focus, which in turn advance a drone’s ability to be used for tasks like counting plant stands during emergence, detecting weeds, and even finding disease or identifying insect pressure at early crop stages.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being combined with drone imagery. Much like how the eagle spots its prey, computer models are being created to take high-resolution images and extract objects from them.
Not long after starting my first communications job in the cotton industry, Texas cotton producer Matt Farmer told me the most important thing he can put over his cotton during the growing season is his shadow. His comment painted a clear picture for me about how important it is for him, or any other farmer, to maintain an eagle eye connection to their cotton.
Drone camera technology will continue to improve. Will it ever have the visual capability of that American bald eagle I saw on Horseshoe Lake? Maybe. But drones will never elicit the excitement I had after I uploaded my images and realized I captured an image of that iconic symbol of America.