Blake Johnston is used to military planes flying over his Aylesford cranberry farm. But last summer, a different kind of aircraft appeared on the horizon: drones.
Although often used for military and covert operations, these drones were being flown by NSCC’s Applied Geomatics Research Group (AGRG). Equipped with infrared sensors, the relatively small unmanned aerial vehicles gathered data on Blake's crops – information that will not only enhance yield, but enable him to do it more cost efficiently.
“We’re always keen to get involved in research projects that will help not only our own farm, but other cranberry farmers,” says Blake, president of Bezanson & Chase Cranberry Company.
“Drones have been ubiquitous in our society for the past couple of years. They’re becoming more effective and cheaper, and we believe they’re going to play a greater role in what we do thanks to the data they can collect.”
Benefits of drones
The drone flights were part of a pilot project conducted by Bill Livingstone, research project manager, David Colville, research scientist, and Brittany Reeves and Ian Manning, research associates with the AGRG. “The use of this technology marks a significant advance in the remote sensing research work that the group has been conducting since 2000,” says Bill.
“What we can do is equip these drones with miniaturized infrared sensors that measure beyond the spectrum of what we can see with our eyes. We did a flight in July, August and then September, photographing locations throughout the field. And the data we gathered was a kind of reality check for them, delivering valuable information for decision-making beyond what their experience and observations were telling them.”
Bezanson & Chase Operations Manager Janice Lutz says the pilot project revealed issues with water drainage, in particular with a new crop that was first planted last year.
“We didn’t know about that until we saw the drone photography,” says Janice. “There’s hydrostatic pressure in the area, and we will need to look at the drainage in that area. The data gives us a chance to correct that before the vines get too established.”
Currently, Bezanson & Chase is talking with the college about the possibility of weekly drone flights for the summer of 2016. “It is the time of the year where we’re fairly active in managing water levels and stress of the plants,” says Blake.
“If the drones can help us do that, it could not only save us irrigation costs, but also significantly enhance our yield and enable us to better manage our resources. The potential of this technology for agriculture in Nova Scotia is virtually limitless.”
Potential for more work with drones
Bill, meanwhile, is looking into other possible projects for the drone technology, both in agriculture and beyond. He sees great potential, not only for enhancing the province’s forestry operations, but also coastal monitoring and protecting our environment.
“I’m amazed at how this technology is constantly changing, with new sensors and new opportunities for applying it. It’s just a matter of time before we start realizing the true value of what it can do. But there’s certainly incredible potential for Nova Scotia to create more product for export, so we want to get this technology into as many hands as possible.”