Research into remote sensing has been taking place for over 40 years, but it is only more recently with advancements in technologies, lower cost and ease of use that we are on the cusp of routinely using it as part of precision services.

Advances in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms, camera sensors and data processing have extended our ability to collect data on demand and with greater ease, precision and with faster turnaround.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of remote sensing is the bird’s eye view that can sometimes provide growers with that “a-ha” moment to validate their experiences and knowledge of patterns or issues in a field. For early adopters, the immediate payback was in using remote sensing to assist in scouting.

However, remote sensing has progressed far beyond this. There are a wide array of camera sensors and index calculations that are now being used, and research continues to provide us with new ones. High resolution RGB cameras (visible spectrum) are being used successfully for creating topographic maps. Thermal cameras that measure temperature are being employed to monitor and assist with irrigation decisions. Multispec cameras that combine multiple sensors into one camera allow collection of data that would otherwise take several.

At the same time, this is a relatively new science for many in agriculture. And whether this data is collected by satellite, plane or UAV, it is essential to understand how to interpret the imagery and use it to make decisions. Data collection is becoming much more autonomous, simplifying the speed and turn-around.

“Growers are rightfully being cautious that they don’t end up with reams of data, some pretty pictures but without actionable outcomes…”

What can sometimes be missed is the ability to interpret this data requires a good knowledge of agronomy and legwork to validate what is seen in the air through field scouting. There is just no substitute for good agronomy experience.

One of the keys to getting growers to adopt the technology is to show them the initial value the data holds while not overwhelming them. Remote sensing is a natural fit with other precision data collection tools to identify those areas of a field that consistently underperform and those that are powering returns. To do that, however, usually requires several years of data and combining several layers of data, soil types, soil tests, topographic, yield, remote sensing, etc.

Growers are rightfully being cautious that they don’t end up with reams of data, some pretty pictures but without actionable outcomes. This is where collaboration between different specialists and service providers can be paramount.

For many growers, this has involved turning to their input supply dealer. Some dealers are building agronomic teams in-house while others are teaming up with specialty UAV ag service providers, soil testing services and the grower’s precision machinery specialists.

Still, bottlenecks are bound to occur. As these precision farming technologies quickly evolve, so too can the frustrations with workflow and communication between technologies. Fortunately, not only are we seeing some effort to standardize file types, data handlers and communication, but improved collaboration.

Some professional agricultural UAV manufacturers are expanding the various options for data outputs, data communication and management that allow for smooth workflow from UAV to data analysis and field management software to machinery. Simplifying workflow will greatly accelerate its adoption.

Fields are inherently variable and a professional UAV is an easy way to gather high resolution imagery on-demand that is more revealing than what could be seen from the ground. Whether through ownership or through one of the rapidly growing specialized ag UAV data service providers, remote sensing is a powerful tool for precision dealers, for in-season scouting, aiding in decision making and creating another layer of information to help growers measure and manage field variability.