Precision AG: a chat with DroneWerkers

precision ag

Drones are no longer a novelty, and farmers use them with increasing frequency in their jobs. Monitoring the soil, verifying the health of crop, these are tasks for drones in precision agriculture (Precision AG), to improve yields and help farmers to make decision.

There’re many companies offering drones for precision AG, and it’s interesting to know how they operates in this promising sector. What differentiate them is their business model and the skill to do the job.

Cooperative drones

DroneWerkers is an organization operates in Netherlands, and as its name says, it concerns about works with drones, and more. Into DroneWerkers (is drone workers in Dutch language) there’re many other companies, everyone with their own knowledge and ability.

These companies work together to offer services for farms: soil maps, data analytics, monitoring crops; partecipants to DroneWerkers are:

  • Aurea Imaging, dealing about drones and crop scannings since 2008;
  • AkkerAnalyse, a RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) certified¬† company with large GPS automation experience;
  • Loonbedrijf Thijssen, a contractor deals about precision AG;
  • ABDrone, offering services to farm to integrate drones technology, data analysis and Internet of Things;
  • MDLagro, with experience in mapping ground and crops;
  • Beemster Drone, improves the use of pesticides and fertilizers using mapping methods;
  • CWV Barlo, deals about drones in precision agriculture.

I had a chat with Bert Rijk about DroneWerkers.

Integrating technology and agriculture

Rolando: Hi Bert, thank you for this chat. Please, tell us who you are and what DroneWerkers does.

Bert: I’m Bert Rijk, enthusiastic about the integration of technology in agriculture and co-founder of Dronewerkers. It works as a cooperative of professional drone operators in agriculture, a sort of ‘Uber for Drones’.
dronewerkers
Bert Rijk

It was founded by a few pioneers in drone technology, all coming from a different background but sharing the same goals; as a result, we try to create a positive contribution to agriculture using drones. Because the industry was still in early days, there was plenty of opportunity to develop and investigate new technology and application, which we could do more efficiently together.

Both for development of new technology and applications, as well as to get a larger coverage for our drone services, it was a good move to start DroneWerkers. We started in Netherlands but expanded throughout Europe and Latin-America. DroneWerkers is a combination of Drones and ‘Loonwerkers’, which are agricultural contractors.

Drones over the fields cropping data

We provide a service together with our approx 25 colleague drone operators throughout Europe. Most of us all have the same drones, sensors and training, so that we can collaboratively provide one streamlined product and service. We use fixed wing drones for their longer endurance in larger area’s such as agricultural fields, though we’re not limited to fixed wings and do operate copter drones if the situation prefers it.
People can go online, and from their account on our cloud platform order a drone flight, which will be assigned to the nearest drone operator.
precision agriculture drones
The drone operator will execute the job and upload the data. Our central processing platform is automated and available for customers to view and analyze their data. Due to the position of the local drone operators, they’re often also used as a expert on technical and agronomic interpretation of the data. The main focus is on high value crops such as orchards, vineyards and vegetables. The main application is for irrigation, fertilizer and crop protection.
Rolando: Do you use third parts software or only your own?
Bert: We use some third party software such as software for image stitching.
The whole platform is build and designed in-house, and all data analysis tools are Python based, build by our own R&D team.
We find that the open-source community is evolving extremely fast, and that tools in Python, R and other languages are increasingly useful for data analytics. This gives us a lot of flexibility to develop according to our own ideas and feeling with the agricultural sector.

Data are a good crop

Rolando: How do you make data analysis?
Bert: We combine different types of analysis. Therefore, we use more ‘traditional’ multispectral imagery for analysis of health and chlorophyll, and we combine this with 3D visual imagery to estimate things like canopy size and even with thermal imagery for leaf temperature estimation.
All of this data can be combined with additional information layers of soil, weather and historic field performance to create new insights for agronomic interpretation and application.
In orchards and viticulture, we’re mainly working of count of flowering, analysis of vigour in-season and leaf discoloration during senescence.

(The first major project of the season is in fruit growing, namely detecting the amount of blossoms per tree. Important for the yield and size sorting of apples and pears. Optionally to adjust location-specific based on, for example. task cards for fruit thinning)
This can be used for blossom thinning, fertilizer application, optimizing irrigation and (root) pruning. Crop protection is an ongoing research, but currently still quite hard to predict and very risky for the farmer.
Rolando: Can maps be upload into a unmanned vehicle?
Bert: The drone imagery is analyzed to create ‘prescription maps’, used to apply for example fertilizer in the field. The map can be imported in the tractor or other vehicle, and will be used for ‘Variable Rate Application’ of the fertilizer or crop protection. We use this in orchards for variable rate root pruning on a tree-level. So every tree is mapped in summer, and this map is used to automatically adjust the depth of root pruning per tree.
Rolando: Who your customer are?
Bert: Our customers can be divided in 3 main categories: Seed & chemical companies, for who we mainly help to analyze experimental fields with new varieties and chemicals. The second group are growers, coops and agronomists. These are the group of customers with the most practical applications of the data for production fields. The focus is on high value crops as it’s easier to make a return on investment for our customers. Third group includes wine growers, vegetable seed companies, potato breeders, sugar beet farmers, orchard managers etc. There are only a few crops that we haven’t analyzed over the past years.

Expansion plans

Rolando: What about your expansions plans?
Bert: Our service model for drone operators is very flexible and scalable, which is interesting for larger companies that want to have service coverage over larger areas. The data analytics are developed per crop group, so they need to be optimized per region, application and crop.
In short, our plans mainly consist of growing our customer base within exiting companies and with new companies, supported by our network of Dronewerkers.
Our R&D team is mainly focusing on developing additional agricultural analytics using the latest technology in deep learning, 3D modelling and spectral analytics. In terms of IT, we’re actively seeking collaboration with other data platforms and Farm Management Systems to connect through APIs.
That’s all. Precision AG with drones, IoT and Data Analysis is a powerful tool for farmers, expecially for Europe ones. Australia and USA are more advanced in this sector, but in my opinion the DroneWerkers model industry is a really winning one, because they join experience and share knowledge.
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