As part of the effort to maintain and increase the world’s food supply, agrochemical companies conduct ongoing research to develop and improve their products. An essential task is measuring the performance of crops treated with new additives. Once handled by technicians in the field examining individual plants, crop assessment is now implemented with uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV). By using precise GNSS, researchers ensure high accuracy and productivity in collecting and processing the aerial data.
Precision Silver is a Florida-based start-up company providing specialized services for the agriculture industry. The company is focused on automated ratings for agricultural research and provides plot- and plant-level analysis of test sites scattered across North America. Their clients include some of the world’s largest agrochemical companies.
According to Precision Silver President Taylor Glenn, typical test sites (or “blocks”) comprise multiple trial plots that are treated with differing levels of additives. Each plot is rated multiple times during a test period to quantify the additives’ effects. Glenn said this work is often done manually using measuring sticks and clipboards. The tedious work requires skilled scientists to spend hours in the field collecting data; time that could be better spent on analysis and interpretation.
Glenn’s company is replacing the in-field evaluations with aerial imagery and specialized software. Using customized UAVs, Precision Silver can obtain high-resolution imagery over the entire site in minutes. “With our system, we automate the process to magnify their productivity,” he says. It provides sort of a ‘superpower,’ where they can be out there for a half hour, instead of all day. Precision Silver then processes the images to obtain more than 20 industry-standard ratings on crop performance on crop types ranging from broadacre crops such as wheat and barley to orchard products including fruit and nut trees.
Precise GNSS in Remote Locations
To produce the desired results, the aerial imaging system needs precise ground control points. Glenn uses a GNSS receiver in conjunction with Trimble CenterPoint® RTX positioning service to establish survey-grade accuracy on the control marks. Glenn often works in areas where RTK or VRS is not practical due to coverage or terrain issues, and appreciates the speed and flexibility of RTX, which provides accuracy better than 2 cm horizontal and 5 cm vertical.
Using Trimble Access software running on a TSC3 controller, field operators can see the real-time accuracy of their GNSS positions. “We like to get horizontal accuracy of 5 cm or better,” Glenn said. “Having that kind of accuracy with a system we can ship across the country to different operators is great. They just need the system once when they start up their block; we use those same coordinates throughout the rest of the project.”
Once a flight route is established, blocks may be reflown 10 to 20 times over a season. “We can do extraordinarily high-resolution images, up to 1 mm per pixel,” Glenn said. “We can really see everything that’s going on in the plots.” The precise ground control ensures that the high-resolution imagery is accurately georeferenced and helps ensure reliable ratings over the season.
Glenn added that the local operators are often skilled agricultural scientists but have no background in GNSS positioning. The simplicity of RTX enables them to quickly establish accurate control and then focus on crop assessment. “Our dealer helped us overcome our lack of deep background in surveying or GNSS,” he said. “They helped us set up a very nice streamlined workflow that works reliably and gets the job done.”
By John Stenmark
John Stenmark is a writer and consultant working in the geospatial, AEC and associated industries. A professional surveyor, he has more than 25 years of experience in applying advanced technology to surveying and related disciplines.