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By now, most of us have heard about the use of drones in precision agriculture. Using special sensors, a drone can quickly map a field and determine overall crop health, including areas that require more moisture, nitrogen, pesticides, etc.

That georeferenced data can then be integrated with say, a GPS-enabled tractor pulling a fertilizer sprayer. The data tells the sprayer precisely what areas of the field need more nitrogen, and which need less, precisely controlling the output in specific areas. That’s why it’s called “precision” agriculture, with the process increasing crop yields while reducing costs.

But a lot of the work being carried out in this field relies on more specialized drones (PrecisionHawk comes to mind) carrying specialized sensors and generally a higher price.

Well, in mid-February of this year a Minnesota-based company called Sentera shook things up a bit by releasing a crop sensor that can be mounted on the Phantom 4 Professional drone.

There it is: The Sentera single sensor, which can be mounted on several DJI products
There it is: The Sentera single sensor, which can be mounted on several DJI products

“By integrating the ultra-lightweight, super-precise Sentera NDVI Single Sensor onto the Phantom 4 Pro platform, agronomists and growers realize a powerful asset for their operations,” says the Sentera news release.

DJI Phantom 4 Pro with a Sentera Single Sensor for precision agriculture
DJI Phantom 4 Pro with a Sentera Single Sensor for precision agriculture

“In a single flight, visual-band RGB, near-infrared (NIR) and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data can be captured simultaneously, and then read immediately for instant insight and action. The Phantom 4 Pro NDVI drone’s efficiency of capture means users can cover more acres, in less time, and crop health can be assessed more frequently.”

Examples of the three types of imagery, RGB, NIR are seen in order, below:

buffalo-corn-10mp-rgb-full_transparent_mosaic_group1-200x300 buffalo-corn-10mp-nir-full_transparent_mosaic_group1-200x300 buffalo-corn-10mp-nir-full_rgba_sentera_ndvi_b-200x300(Images from Sentera.com)

Basically, a farmer (or entrepreneur) would send in their Phantom (including the Phantom 3 models), and Sentera would do the modification to add the sensor. Flying over the field would capture the data, which would then be processed and interpreted with the included Sentera software called AgVault. The data can be analysed, cataloged and stored – and even shared online with anyone to whom you grant access. (One small aside – having the mod done voids your DJI warranty – and any autonomous flights will require an iOS device.)

“In the next month, some growers will see their first crops popping up,” saysKris Poulson, vice president of agriculture for Sentera. “Now is the optimal time to start using True NDVI data to make input decisions: while the plants are young and vigor can be influenced.”

Poulson made his remarks in the release about the Phantom. But on March 2, the company announced that it was making a similar mod available for the Mavic Pro. Same drill: Send in your machine and they’ll do the mod. Or, if you don’t already have a DJI product, you can purchase both from Sentera and an integrated unit will be shipped to you. (Mods are also available for the Inspire One as well.)

Precision agriculture pimped-out Mavic Pro
Precision agriculture pimped-out Mavic Pro

But the Mavic Pro? That’s pretty cool – considering the drone is so small and sells for $999. The actual conversion runs $2,649 if you already own a Mavic Pro, or $3,649 for the whole shebang. Considering the cost of other precision agriculture units, this is a steal.

“Together, the state-of-the-art Mavic and Sentera NDVI Single Sensor provide growers and agronomists with an affordable, reliable way to collect near-infrared (NIR), normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and high-resolution color imagery in a single flight,” says the release. “Simultaneous image capture allows growers to save time and fly more frequently while confidently and systematically collecting critical, precise crop-health data from which they can immediately make informed input decisions.”

With the growth in precision agriculture demand, Sentera has been a very busy company. In one growing season alone, the company collected more than 175 terabytes of data from 8,000 flights. Sentera has also cataloged some 25 million acres of land.

This makes us wonder, of course, what other third-party sensors might potentially be in the works that could be adapted to consumer drones. Is someone out there already working on a LIDAR unit? Are there small thermal FLIR-like devices that will come next for the Mavic Pro or other consumer models? How about 360 and 3D cameras? Given the number of third-party software applications out there already, third-party hardware like these examples seems pretty logical.

There’s a world of possibilities out there. And the Sentera announcement makes TDC wonder if this is the first wave in a whole new range of sensors designed and optimized for consumer drones. In fact, might the next fleet of consumer drones have specialized inputs or circuitry purpose-designed for such integration?

We don’t know. But – like everything else involving sensors – we’ll see.


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