When you are a company from the seed breeding industry or others, the objective of setting up drone flights for plant phenotyping in a research program is to digitize, simplify and improve the measurement of plants and field with sensors thanks to a precise and unique methodology for all your trials, regardless of their location in the world.

Today, setting up a drone acquisition protocol for agricultural image analytics is a process that some consider long and sometimes expensive. However, companies specialized in image processing for plant phenotyping can accompany the actors of the agricultural ecosystem to set up such projects, and this is where Hiphen can help.

From advice on the most suitable equipment for your project, to flight procedures, data processing and beyond, Hiphen accompanies you all along your phenotyping journey to enable you to access frictionless phenotyping with drones.

Implementing drone flights into a research program is journey that can be divided into 6 mains phases, some of them are recurring, and there are several people involved in such project so first, lets focus on the key players and their roles before to start.

 

1/ The key players involved in implementing drone flights for plant phenotyping

 

We have listed exhaustively the key players involved in implementing drone flights for plant phenotyping projects in the table below. Each of them are important because it’s crucial to understand that the initiative is a chain and not the sum of its links. People from several departments are sometimes involved and providers can also be a part of the project (especially for the drone pilots), so that’s why a binding phase needs to take place at the very beginning of the project, as we will see later.

Thus, here are the players that you need to identify within your organization before to start, and their role in the initiative:

Name Role
Client Management Decision-makers on client side. They are involved in the major steps of the project.
Breeding team A motivated team with a nominated contact point whose role is to secure ground observation and synchronize observations and flights with the whole team.
Project Coordinator
(Client Side)
Coordinator of the project on a client side. He is a member of the breeding team and oversees the ground measurements, of the tele pilots planning’s, of making the link with Hiphen’s project coordinator, of the upload of the datasets to our data platform and of sending updates upon the project's progress or issues.
Project Coordinator
(Hiphen Side)
Global coordinator of the project, he helps to define the scope of the project and helps to select the device(s)/sensor(s). He also helps to define the traits, the validation process and the phenological stages to fly at with the help of Hiphen's agricultural remote sensing experts. He Generate and send the SOPs and send feedback upon the acquired/uploaded data. Most importantly, he oversees the data processing of the selected traits.
Field Acquisition Operator(s) Whether drone tele pilot with a diploma within the client's organization or external service providers, here also with a contact point involved in the meetings and updates for a better project's coordination. The field acquisition operator(s) oversee acquiring research-grade image datasets following strictly the protocol sent by Hiphen's project coordinator.

 

In some cases, people from your organization could cover several roles, but this gives you a precise overview of the resources needed to implement drone flights into your research program.

 

2/ The main phases of the drone flights implementation process

 

Now that the key players are identified, it’s time to focus on the main steps of the implementation process. Here is the summary of the different phases:

  • Binding phase
  • Legal & pre-operational phase
  • Project’s definition phase
  • Contractual phase
  • Planning phase
  • Acquisition & processing phase

For each phase we several steps to complete and several people involved in, so let’s dive deeper into each phase.

 

  • Binding phase:

It is basically an introductive meeting to let all the stakeholders to get to know each other’s and their role in the initiative. As we said before, this step is crucial to make sure everyone in the organization and in the project understand that it’s a process that must be followed in the right order to become successful. This is obviously a one-off phase and all the players, and the service providers if some are involved in the project at any time, must take part in this introductive meeting.

  • Legal & pro-operational phase:

It’s s also a one-off phase but this one must take place for every trial if there are many located in different places. In this second phase, you must at least:

  • Get a drone tele pilot diploma
  • Buy the necessary equipment (Drone, transport case, take-off zone, batteries, sensor(s), targets, GPS, tablet, eventual software subscription: RTK GPS for instance)
  • Check drone legislation to ensure activities are possible and get drone flight permissions from your country's Civil Aviation Administration (CAA)
  • Train the drone tele pilot(s) to acquire research-grade images for agriculture (Hiphen Academy)

With this phase, we are aiming at performing all the preparatory and legal steps to be able to trigger drone flights on demand later, whenever you need in the season. Finally, to give a timeframe for this phase, overall, it can last from 2 to 6 months based on our previous experiences. It can be more for some countries since local restrictions apply for drone providers (like DJI in the US for instance) or if you encounter any issues with your civil aviation authority.

With phase number 3 coming up next, we are entering the phases that are recurring every new project during the research program, knowing that a research program can last several years (we usually say that a breeding cycle lasts an average of 7 years).

  • Project’s definition phase

The first phase which is recurring is the project’s definition, and by that we mean that it’s time the define the objective and stakes of the project. One project usually refers to one growing season. Here is what you need to do at least:

  • Define the breeding program modalities (crops, number of trials, location, validation)
  • Define the traits targeted, the use of those traits and categorize them (deployable, validation, exploratory)
  • Define if validation is needed and how it will be made (e.g., ground measurements)
  • Select the device/sensor and define the scope of the project (number of flights per trial, etc.) and here is where Hiphen can help.

This third phase is a key pillar of the project and sets the basis of implementing an easy-to-use decision support tool into your research program. Duration of this step is around 2 to 3 weeks depending on your organization.

  • Contractual phase

No surprise here, this phase seals the project for the upcoming season when all the paperwork and payments have been figured out between you and Hiphen. This doesn’t take too much time; we consider 2 weeks as a reasonable timing.

  • Planning phase

The penultimate phase of implementing drone flights for plant phenotyping projects is planning the season:

  • Defining the right phenological stage to fly at
  • Set the drone pilots agenda accordingly
  • Generate and send the SOPs (this is Hiphen’s job to provide you with a dedicated document that includes all the parameters to be considered to set up you flight missions depending on the trait you wish to obtain and the equipment you are using. This document is provided for each flight, and you must follow it strictly to acquire research-grade images, for a fast data processing)
  • Hook the GCPs to the ground in the field before the 1st flight
  • And more…

We consider taking 2 to 3 weeks to plan the season properly before being able to fly the drone for plant phenotyping projects. Also note that this phase and the next one are aiming at giving you access to analytics to support breeding decisions. So, following these steps in the right order will ensure the smooth running of the project.

  • Acquisition & processing phase

The final phase of the process, this one objective is to let you collect data for real-time decision thanks to the drone flights and Hiphen’s data processing expertise. To make sure the project will be a success, there are a few more steps to complete such as:

  • Flying the drone at the right phenological stage, with good lighting conditions
  • Upload you image datasets online using Hiphen's dedicated uploader
  • Feedback on data quality takes place (dedicated meeting led by Hiphen’s project manager)
  • Data processing of your selected traits takes place*
  • Traits’ results delivery (dedicated meeting led by Hiphen’s project manager)

Timing this phase is almost impossible since all projects are different and since this phase lasts the entire growing season. So, it depends mostly on the crop(s) concerned and on the number of flights that are needed to compute the selected traits.

Now we have covered the entire process of implementing drone flights for plant phenotyping projects based on our own experience with CGIAR and other institutions and companies. To summarize all the steps and phases, we have put together a more digestible infographic for you to understand the whole process:

schematic view of drone flights implementation in green and blue

Feel free to contact us should you have any question about a specific phenotyping trait at www.hiphen-plant.com/contact/. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Speak soon,
Your Hiphen team.

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