Saturday, June 6, 2015

Empire Ag Imagery: Comparing Aerial Imagery to Grid Soil Samples

One of our many calibration trials this year is comparing bare soil imagery (enhanced color, green NDVI, and synthesized natural color) to grid soil samples to see if we can predict soil OM (and possibly other soil nutrients) levels. This would allow farmers to decrease the number of soil samples they need to take, but still give them a high level of precision management needed to make variable rate fertilizer applications, variable rate herbicide applications, or variable seeding rates. 

Enhanced Color survey of bare soil.

Green NDVI survery of bare soil.

Synthesized natural color survey of bare soil.

Once we get the grid soil sample results back we'll run some statistical analyses to compare the soil chemical analyses to these three types of imagery along with soil conductivity measurements in some additional fields. After harvest we will fly the fields again to run additional comparisons to evaluate if there are any seasonal changes to our data. 

Read more about this research and other projects on our precision agriculture page on our website,

Empire Ag Imagery

Empire Ag Imagery’s website is officially up and running. Check it out at Be sure to like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.

We are providing on-demand, geo-referenced imagery products to improve crop management. Our plane is equipped with cameras that take NDVI, enhanced color, and high definition natural color images of fields. The mosaics of these images are available for download within 24 hours of our plane flying our customers’ fields. Our plane can cover thousands of acres a day and volume discounts are available. Empire Ag Imagery is the NY dealer for AgPixel.

In addition to these imagery products, I’m offering a wide range of consulting services similar to my former responsibilities with Cornell Cooperative Extension including technical presentations, small group meetings, agronomic writing services, crop consulting services (including specialty crops such as malting barley and hops), and contract research services.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Corrections & clarifications for the recent article "FAA-Approved Ag Drones Will Soon Hover Over Upstate New York Farms"

Mr. Holt,

I recently read your article posted on October 10th, 2014 on and I see that you referenced an article that appeared in the Figure Lakes Times for which I spoke with the author prior to its publication. I am more than willing to discuss our current and planned UAS work so that all members of the media can tell a story that is well-grounded in fact.

While many parts of your story are true to the reality of the situation, your article unfortunately contains a number of misleading/false statements so I wanted to call them to your attention. I request that you make the necessary corrections to your article.
1)      The term UAS is never used is this article.
While most people know (or think they know) what a “drone” is, that is not the proper term to describe unmanned aerial systems (UAS). UAS are not just platforms as the term “drone” implies. Rather they are platforms, sensors, ground control stations, pilots & observers, and many other components. My standard procedure is to mention the term “drone” once and then use UAS to more accurately describe these tools when writing for the general public. UAS is the term used by the FAA.
2)      Is the future of farming a quadcopter?
We are not using a quadcopter. We are using a fixed wing UAS from Precision Hawk the closely resembles a radio controlled aircraft. Quadcopters have a very short battery life which doesn’t allow them to cover very many acres per flight. In the long-term they will likely not be the most common agricultural UAS even though there are currently many people trying to use them for farming purposes.
3)      A farmer needs to check on her crops—making sure they’re coming up free of pests and weeds and ensuring the health of the soil. Instead of grabbing a pair boots to venture into the fields on foot, the farmer grabs a joystick and kicks back on the couch. The low hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle—a drone—flying over the farm replaces the crunch of soil beneath the farmer’s feet. As the farmer navigates the drone, visual, thermal, and multispectral cameras send vital information about the crops back to a nearby computer. More pesticide here, less irrigation there; the harvest will start in this block and wrap up in that one. All that information and more is gathered by drone, without the farmer needing to step outside.
This is not a realistic expectation. We (a pilot and a visual observer) are required by the FAA to be within line of site during all UAS operations in order to monitor the safety of our UAS flights and be in direct contact with air traffic control in case of an emergency. Also ‘boots on the ground’ (either the farmer’s or a crop consulting company’s) will always be needed on some level to ground-truth the UAS imagery. Furthermore the complexity of processing the images to a usable form, figuring out what management decisions can or should be made (if any), and those decisions actually being put into use by farmers are still in the very early research stages. Any “farmer” who thinks they can or will be able to sit on the couch and farm by remote control won’t be farming long. I realize you are trying to put an impactful image into people’s minds to catch and keep their interest, but this is nowhere near the reality representing UAS current or future use. Like most tasks in farming it’s going to take a lot of work and attention to detail to do it safely and effectively.
4)      The two Cornell Cooperative Extension field-crops specialists, Bill Verbeten and Mike Stanyard, will begin flying their Precision Hawk UAV over fields in Genesee County, and they hope to gain clearance to use it across 10 counties next year.

We have authorization for a small set of farm fields at a single location in Genesee County, not the entire county. All of our applications are for very specific locations and we are working very closely with those farms. This issue comes up again later in the article.

5)      “At the end of the day, we hope to learn if we can replace some of our tasks that take a lot of time on the ground,” said Verbeten, who works with both the Niagara County CCE and the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Team. 

Mike and I work with the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Team and our offices are in Wayne County and Niagara County respectively. These counties, and the other eight we officially work in, pay to receive the services of our regional Extension team (and in many cases other regional teams) instead of only having local staff which used to be commonplace. We are employees of Cornell University, not the local counties.
6)      The duo is clearly enthused about drones’ potential to cut man-hours spent inspecting fields while producing highly scientific crop analysis, but not everyone shares their excitement. Elizabeth Henderson, who for 30 years has farmed organic vegetables in Wayne County, N.Y.—one of the counties where the Cornell team hopes to fly drones next year—doesn’t plan on allowing them to fly over her fields. She says a farmer with less than 20 acres doesn’t need a drone, because that farmer “knows the land by being on it and seeing it foot by foot regularly, even daily.” Drones, she believes, will primarily benefit large-scale, industrial agriculture.
We will not be flying Ms. Henderson’s or any other farmers field without their permission in writing. We have and continue to receive widespread support for this work from most of the farming community and we are doing it abiding by every rule and protocol that we can. Again we only have authorization for very defined areas on hand-picked farms that go through a very thorough approval process. A farmer with less than 20 acres will be able to benefit from UAS work once the commercial rules are in place and best management recommendations are established. Provided they meet the criteria the FAA puts in place for commercial UAS rules, small farms will be able to use UAS for many task including:
·         Taking promotional videos/photos to interact with customs online.
·         Potentially detecting diseases, insect, & weed pressure along with crop nutrient status in high value crops grown on small acreage such as hops, grapes, & fruit trees (in addition to vegetable & traditional field crops).
·         Monitoring livestock health and behavior.
There is value to walking the land (and there will continue to be for larger farms as well), but the human eye can’t see thermal images, NDVI (from a multispectral scanner), or even the resolution of a visual scan, much less analyze the data. The technological innovations that led to small UAS creation in the first place actually levels the playing field across farms of all sizes.
7)      “Use of drones will help consolidate control of farming inputs in the hands of the largest corporations and complete the total information in the hands of the government about what we farmers are doing on our land,” says Henderson, who has been on the board of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York since 1989. “The footstep of the farmer is the best fertilizer.”
We are not (nor are others in agriculture) giving information obtained by UAS scans from farmer fields away to the government. We will be working with many parties within Cornell University to evaluate their data and the potential to use it to improve farming practices. We fully respect the farmer’s privacy and this is a conspiracy theory without ground to stand on.
 Farmer scouting and monitoring of fields is not fertility management. Those processes are governed by chemistry, biology, and physics on all farms (regardless of philosophical differences) and the statement is blatantly misleading and false. Plants can only use what is available to them and unless a farmer applies fertilizer in some form (including manures, composts, commercial fertilizers, etc.) or a given essential plant nutrient happens to already be in the soil it doesn’t matter how often a farmer looks at/walks a field.
8)      Drones, she says, will consolidate control among large-scale agriculture by calibrating more precisely the amount of fertilizer or herbicides needed—a problem she and her fellow small-scale, organic farmers don’t have.
Again this statement is untrue on a number of levels. Many market forces are part of the consolidation phenomenon that occurs in all industries over time, it’s simply part of the natural cycle of markets. UAS imagery has a long way to go before being able to be consistently useful at the farm level and will almost certainly not be a factor that trumps current market forces in agriculture leading to consolidation of farms.
We work with a number of organic farms that are very interested in calibrating their fertilizer levels and have a strong interest in evaluating/eventually using UAS to better manage their crops. Even at a small scale, organic farms will have many reasons to operate UAS use as described above under item 5. Also these statements (5,6,& 7) falsely give the impression that we are not working with organic farms—nothing could be further from the truth. We are trying to evaluate UAS across many farm types throughout our region in order to effectively serve our diverse farming community.

If you require further clarification or have additional questions do not hesitate to contact me on this topic.

Have a great day.

Regional Extension Agronomist
NWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team
Cornell Cooperative Extension
(585)313-4457 cell
Twitter: Bill Verbeten @BillVerbeten