Before discussing the current state of play of the drone industry in agriculture, it’s interesting to jump back to the roots of using drone equipment for agricultural imaging.
We can identify the birth of professional drone manufacturing back in 2010 when a few startups started to show up with the objective to bring Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into production for business purposes. At that time, the agricultural sector started to identify use cases for drone phenotyping projects, and the most important KPI that the industry was looking for at that time was the surface coverage of the device. So basically, the early adopters wanted to be able to assess their field trials at large scale in a high-throughput fashion, and fixed-wings devices were the best-fitting equipment to match their expectations. Thus, the traits that they wanted to investigate with such drones were mainly multispectral traits for fertilization modulation purposes.
Companies such as Airinov and Delair were providing great drones at that time, but they quickly started to become outdated for crop assessment, here is why.
Around 2015, other companies such as Planet and ESA with the sentinel-2, came up with a totally different device approach: the satellite, but aiming at assessing field trials in the same way that drones did. Therefore, the drone industry had to adapt, that’s the time were a common interest of the agricultural sector surfaced to use drones for smaller plant features inspections, at trial level, such as the canopy coverage (Fcover) and the plant count, for a few crops. Here is an example of drone phenotyping on maize:
Following the popular demand, the KPIs of interest became the image resolution and the flight configuration, meaning that quadcopter drones became the go-to devices, with their good-resolution embedded sensors and their improved maneuverability. Below you can find a picture of one of the first quadcopter drone phenotyping device to date. And as we like to call them at Hiphen, these devices can be categorized as the “DYI drones” because of their exposed wires and modeling-like esthetic.
But the main drawback with the introduction of such “handmade” devices was the price point and also, they were not so easy to use. This new technology has for consequence a high price sensibility that made it sometimes not accessible to everybody’s means. So, time was needed to widen access to this kind of equipment, and that’s the time when DJI came out in 2018.
With the Mavic range (see the Mavic 2 Enterprise above), DJI brought a revolution to the market. Portable devices with embedded sensor that can be flown easily using a tablet or a small remote controller, that was clearly a game changer. Thus, more people started to being interested by drone phenotyping and to use them in their trials so, ever since at Hiphen, we have been working on drone data pipelines to develop new traits and to help you to uncover new plant features assessments remotely.
Then In 2020, we can say that drone phenotyping became more accessible with more offerings and more competition from companies such as Autel at least, which implied price drops for this kind of technology. From there, more and more people started to use drones in their field trials on a daily basis, that was the time of drone usage democratization. In addition to that, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is really reaching maturity now and we start to identify new possibilities for plant phenotyping with drones. So, on the one hand drones are now used by more and more crop researchers to collect data upon their crops’ behavior, and on the other hand, new use cases are emerging since the technology is still improving. To bring answers to these new use cases, sensors providers such as DJI, SONY and PhaseOne have recently brought to the market high-resolution cameras that allow to give another dimension to drone flights. We are now able to assess more traits than never before, within one single image, thanks to the P3, P1 and L1 (LiDAR) sensors.
Is it worth the investment though? Well, it depends on the traits that you want to assess and on your budget obviously.
Therefore, at Hiphen we now envision to focus on making large scale assessments of simple plant features such as plot quality, plant lodging, plant count, early vigor and so on, with low-costs drone equipment because we now have well-vetted data pipelines for these devices and sensors. By low-costs drone equipment we don’t mean cheap, but affordable such as the DJI Mavic 2 and its competitors because now they represent a great value for price. This kind of equipment is perfect to assess simple plant features at scale because the traits require standard resolution, and the embedded sensor of these drones are suitable to get the job done.
In addition, we are starting to scale up complex plant features assessments, which necessitate more image resolution, such as yield estimation, organ counting and diseases detection at least, using higher-resolution drone equipment. Here is wheat head counting for instance:
However, exactly as it did in 2015 with quadcopter drones, these new high-resolution drones and sensors are quite expensive while entering the market. As it stands for now, we really think that they are suitable if you have a precise and urgent need of this kind of equipment for current phenotyping projects, otherwise, our data pipelines are on point to assess routinely a lot of agronomic traits from our portfolio to help you to add valuable phenotypic data to your research programs.
To conclude, drones are now reaching maturity for plant phenotyping purposes. Indeed, a lot of devices and sensors can help you to answer your needs whatever your budget is. Stay connected to discover our drone equipment comparative table coming soon!
Meanwhile, don’t forget that the right sensor for your projects should adapt to the requirements of the traits you want to compute and not the other way around. You can find some examples in the table below:
At Hiphen, we always give our best to extract maximum value from your field trial datasets to help you answer your phenotyping ambitions with quality-focused data. Thus, we are here to accompany you in your phenotyping journey from helping you to select the best-fitting device all the way through to providing you with the best recommendation and flight procedures, for a fast and accurate data processing of your selected traits.
Feel free to contact us should you have any question at www.hiphen-plant.com/contact/. We look forward to hearing from you.
Your Hiphen team.