Ep. 30: The Viability of Drones and Row Crops with Craig Houin
Drones have been a hot topic in ag for over a decade. They came into the market, as most new technologies do, with a relatively high cost and some kinks that needed to be worked out. As the years have passed, many companies have written off drone technology as not useful enough or not scalable. However, in this episode of Precision Points, Craig Houin from Sunrise Cooperative in Ohio shares how they are digging deep into this technology in order to extract valuable and actionable insights.
One of the big projects Craig digs into is Sunrise’s experiment using drones for taking stand counts. In this instance, the drone will fly the flight path, and share images and NDVI images right from the side of the field. This early assessment of the stand can help shed light on planter performance. Many using this technology are excited about the drone’s capacity to complete this task, making it easier to make more informed replant decisions in a more timely fashion.
“This will allow us to dial it in and first determine the amount of area that needs to be replanted and whether or not that's a large enough area to justify pulling the planter back out there,” Craig shares. “But also we can create, on the fly, a prescription map of where and what needs to be replanted, how much seed we're going to put out there in that replant, and just go to those areas and replant.”
To listen to our full conversation, check out the player above or tune into Precision Points in your favorite podcast app.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: Craig Houin
Welcome to Precision Points: An Ag Tech Podcast where we plant seeds of innovation to inspire informed decisions about precision technology and its impact for growers like you. We explore precision ag tools and technology from the soil to the sky, with your host Morgan Seger.
Morgan Seger (00:22):
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. And in each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas.
Morgan Seger (00:34):
Today on the show, I am joined by my friend, Craig Houin. Craig and I go way back. Most of my career I spent working alongside him, and he has always pushed me to really study and understand new technology and the way it can benefit growers. Today on the show, he walks us through a trial program that he is working on with drones.
Morgan Seger (00:53):
Now, drones are something that are not new to this space, and we have in fact talked about them a lot in the past. But what he is working on is figuring out how to get valuable information out of them while at the same time, being scalable. So making sure they're covering enough acres or the right acres to make an impact for those growers during the growing season. So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Craig.
Morgan Seger (01:18):
Welcome back to Precision Points. Today, I'm joined by my friend, Craig Houin, data innovation lead at Sunrise Cooperative. Craig, welcome back to the show.
Craig Houin (01:27):
Thanks. It's great to be back.
Morgan Seger (01:29):
Last time you were on, we spent time kind of wrapping up the growing season and talking about in-season tools that you were using. So today I'm excited to have you on the front side of the growing season, so we can talk about what things you're planning for 2021. You're sitting in your truck right now. I know you just got done flying a field. Can you tell us what you guys are working on when it comes to using drones and the type of data you are collecting?
Craig Houin (01:54):
Yeah, we've got a trial going on this year. You know as well as I do, drones have been around for a long, long time, and we're really trying to find a viable option to use them, other than pretty pictures and flying it way too high to get tile lines and things like that. So we're looking for valuable data.
Craig Houin (02:14):
We teamed up with Sentera Drones last year, just out of almost a fluke, and it just worked out. We were able to get a PHX, which is their fixed-wing drone. It's a styrofoam drone with all the hardware in it and software tied to it. You basically launch it like you throw a dart, and it takes off and flies its flight, collecting data the whole time. And then we're able to bring it in at the field edge, without internet connection. It loads right into our program and we're able to see an NDVI image of that field and also thumbnails of the actual images within. So we can dial right into those spots and see what's going on.
Craig Houin (02:59):
The thing that we're going to be doing first and looking forward to it... Thankfully, we've got some corn in the ground already, some beans in the ground already, and it's only April 15th, I think is what today is. So we're looking probably in the next two to three weeks to be able to do some stand counts.
Craig Houin (03:18):
I've been told and had some people say that that is a big deal. If you can get true whole-field populations spatially, across the field and see our trouble areas, see our good areas, and make a replant decision based on that in a shorter amount of time than what we currently do. A lot of times, you let it get up to V2 or you just look at it out of chance and say, "I'm going to rip that field up and start over again." This will allow us to dial it in and first determine the amount of area that needs to be replanted and whether or not that's a large enough area to justify pulling the planter back out there. But also we can create, on the fly, a prescription map of where and what needs to be replanted, how much seed we're going to put out there in that replant, and just go to those areas and replant. So we're looking forward to that opportunity to be able to diagnose an issue quickly and learn from it.
Craig Houin (04:19):
Another thing that we can do with that stand count is look at seed placement. You can dial into those areas and you can see where you have a skip, how many skips you have through that field. Maybe overlay it with your precision planting information on stimulation and doubles and skips and such, and see what that looks like. But you've got to see the data. You've got to get the data, look at it, make comparisons between the two. But I think that's going to be an exciting opportunity for us coming into 2021, early in the planning season.
Morgan Seger (04:52):
Sure. What's the resolution that you guys are looking at?
Craig Houin (04:56):
It's sub-inch, so it's pretty tight. We had a training yesterday and they were able to zoom in and you can see right down to the plant at V2. Crazy, crazy clarity on these images. So we'll be able to really dial it in and see what's going on.
Morgan Seger (05:15):
Yeah. I'm excited about this for a couple of reasons. This episode is going to be airing in June, which lots of times is when we're making these replant decisions. It's crazy that you're able to look at these fields already in April. But from the sounds of it, there's quite a bit of stuff in the ground. So I'm excited that you're able to kind of get boots on the ground and play with this earlier than what we normally would have really been able to see at crop growing. What are you seeing so far?
Craig Houin (05:40):
Not much yet. It's in the ground. The ground is really fit. It really is. We were fortunate over the past weekend to get about an inch of rain, which we really, really, really needed. We could have used about an inch and a half or two, to be quite honest with you. We'll take what we get. Beggars can't be choosers. But the ground is really fit.
Craig Houin (05:59):
I was with a grower for just a short period of time this morning, and I looked at his seed trends and it closed really well. It looked like he had really good seed-to-soil contact with that seed going into the ground. It's just crazy that we're looking at the middle of April and everything is as fit as it is.
Craig Houin (06:17):
A lot of guys had gotten their field work done in my neighborhood. Ammonia is put on and done. A lot of guys are really looking forward to this 2021 season. I have a lot of optimism for it, and I think people are really looking forward to getting the crop in the ground.
Morgan Seger (06:33):
Sure. Now, when you were talking through... Once you get the maps and you're making those replant decisions, you said you kind of make them on the fly. So what does this look like if someone is wanting to use a drone to help them make those decisions?
Craig Houin (06:47):
Well, the process is pretty straightforward. We have a program that's on our laptop, where when we fly the field, we have an SD card in the drone. We pop that out, plug it into the computer, and load that data in. That probably takes the most time, actually, because it's a lot of data coming in. We're talking on a 150-acre field, you're looking at about a gigabyte of data. So you're moving that in, and it processes and it'll do what's called a quick tile. So it's not stitching it together; it's just putting all those tiles in there. But that's enough information for the program to be able to go in and run its analysis.
Craig Houin (07:30):
The demonstration they had yesterday was a 40-acre field, and it took a minute and a half to get a seed count or a stand count on that 40 acres. So that process is pretty quick.
Craig Houin (07:42):
Once you can see it, it's just...you can have two different views of it. It has every photo dot. So it takes a photograph every second to second and a half of flight time. And every photo dot is georeferenced on the map, and it does the stand count from that. So you have your circle area that's color-coded based on population.
Craig Houin (08:02):
And then it'll also do a raster file, or what you would typically see in an image, whether it be Climate or R7 or what have you, where it's the color-coded and it's completely filled. So they interpolate that a little bit, but it's a pretty straightforward and good visualization of where your issues are.
Craig Houin (08:24):
So then you can dial in and you can look at your NDVI scale, run sliders, and only make visible what is bad or good or what have you, to move it across the spectrum. And you can say, "All right, I just want to look at everything under 29,000 or 28,000 seed." And you slide that over, and then all of a sudden, that's what you see. And then you can develop your prescription off of that and say, "I'm going to replant everything under 28,000, and I'm going to put 29,000 out there," or whatever you want to put out. And then you can export that as a prescription.
Craig Houin (09:00):
And like I said, it takes a long time to bring it in, but you're looking at less than 10, 15 minutes to do the rest of it. So once you get done flying that field, within a half hour, you have a prescription file you could upload into a planter tractor.
Morgan Seger (09:16):
Sure. So it sounds like from start to finish, it still takes less time than what it would take us just to go out and walk the field normally to get a thorough idea of how the stand came up.
Craig Houin (09:30):
Yeah, exactly. And I walk a lot slower than I used to. I'm pretty good at measuring out 17 feet, five inches and starting to count, and then you start to do that five, 10 times across the field before you really feel confident that's a consistent number across… yeah, it's an hour or two hours to really do a field justice if you're going to do it by foot.
Craig Houin (09:49):
Having a drone out there to do it, I mean, it doesn't take long to fly. I think I told you before we started recording, it's a pretty brain dead operation. It is really, really exciting for the first three flights. Your heart rate goes up and you're watching that thing the whole time, you're moving right along with it. And after about four or five, six flights, you're like, "Okay, I see it. All right, now what am I going to do?" It could get a little boring after a while.
Morgan Seger (10:18):
Well, one of the interesting things you've taught me before we started recording was that drones yield to anything else in the way.
Craig Houin (10:26):
Morgan Seger (10:27):
So how does it detect what's coming?
Craig Houin (10:30):
It doesn't. You do have to pay attention. That's the hard part. So you're listening, you're constantly scanning the horizon. You know where it's at. You can see it on your iPad or your phone, whatever you're controlling it with. So you know where it's at, and you're supposed to maintain line of sight, so that's critically important. But you always scan the horizon. That's one of the things that you learn when you go after your license, that you do have to be fully aware of everything around you and the drone does yield to manned aircraft helicopters, airplanes.
Craig Houin (11:08):
One case example I had last year, I was flying a field. Before I even launched it, my son was with me at the time and he has a lot better hearing than I do, and I heard something, but I couldn't isolate the sound. And he's like, "It sounds like a helicopter," and he said, "It's right over there." It was out of our field range, but it was a LifeFlight flying about 300 feet, 400 feet in the air. And I'm like, "Let's just wait for that to move through, and then we'll launch it." So yeah, you have to be aware of what's going on. That's probably the hardest part.
Craig Houin (11:41):
Once you get into flying these, then the boredom level increases quite a bit. So you do have to stay focused on what's going on. Because they have these fully automated. Once you developed a flight plan, put it into the drone and get it going, and you do have to stay alert, and that could be a challenge.
Morgan Seger (12:02):
Got you. So it's not that it does it automatically, it's just that that's the rule. They must yield to anything else in the air. Okay. I'm following you now. I thought there was some sort of magic going on, but that's just the operator's requirement.
Craig Houin (12:17):
No, there's no magic with that. No.
Morgan Seger (12:19):
When it comes to creating your flight path, is that essentially just putting in the boundary, or are you making sure it has a proper amount of overlap, or what all goes into that?
Craig Houin (12:30):
Fortunately, there's a lot of settings already put in place. Like I said, we work with Sentera. They know their programs. Their default settings are really accurate, so we don't need to touch them. Actually, one thing we learned, that if we do think we need to touch them, just call support and they'll help us with that.
Craig Houin (12:51):
The overlaps change by the altitude that you fly, the type of image that you're trying to collect, the type of plane or drone that you are using, whether it be a fixed-wing PHX or a quad. That changes the overlap.
Craig Houin (13:05):
The other thing is, on a PHX, being a fixed-wing, it's more efficient flying crosswind. So you do need to pay attention to what the wind direction is and the wind speed is. So you want to make sure you can do that. You can change that direction of flight right on the app. You just spin it a little bit to make sure you're in that crosswind.
Craig Houin (13:26):
The other thing that we learned is that it saves battery and it's much more efficient on its turns if you turn into the wind rather than having a tailwind on your turn. So you could adjust your starting point, your entry point, you could do all that stuff. All that takes less than five minutes. I mean, it's not a difficult proposition once you get used to the software. So it's rather efficient. And then you upload it and throw it in the air and it takes off.
Morgan Seger (13:55):
Away it goes.
Craig Houin (13:56):
Comes back to you and lands.
Morgan Seger (13:57):
Have you had any crashes yet?
Craig Houin (13:58):
Yeah. It comes apart very well and chunks come off of it really easy.
Craig Houin (14:08):
Now, actually, it's kind of stupid, but a lot of different things happening and I second guessed myself and I had it started and I went to just toss it, and I had a lot of wind at me. I was on a road, had power lines above me and I was underneath the power lines. I had no concerns at all, really of launching it, getting it going. But I just second guessed myself and I held onto it just a second too long and I changed the trajectory of it and it landed right on the road. Broke the props. Actually shattered them completely off of the plane. Broke the nose piece off and did a whole bunch of stuff. I got it home, pulled the J-B Weld out and glued it all back together. Next morning, it was perfectly fine. Went and flew it, and it hasn't missed a beat since.
Craig Houin (15:00):
But yeah, it's designed to do that. Luckily it is, because I've lost a few pieces off of it and had to put back on.
Morgan Seger (15:09):
Awesome. Well, let's talk for a minute, if you don't mind sharing, around scalability. I feel like when drones first came out, a lot of people jumped at them and a lot of people didn't, and some people did and then put them on the shelves. It was all around scalability. Like, "These images are great, the data we're getting is great, but we just can't cover that many acres." And so then we saw people going towards as-applied data or satellite imagery and things like that. So what are your thoughts on scalability? Where are you guys kind of at today?
Craig Houin (15:43):
Well, and that's really what our whole trial is all about. Can we scale this? And if we are to attempt to scale it and take it across a wide range of growers and a lot of fields and cover thousands of acres, how many units do we need to have? How many acres can one person handle? That's the big question that we've got to answer this summer.
Craig Houin (16:07):
I think we can handle it at least on a small-scale basis. We're going to try and stick with about 20 to 30 fields, and I will say that grew just a little bit from our initial objective. But we have two sets of drones right now. We're going to try and be able to scatter that across the state that we work within, and hopefully find some level of scalability that we can handle.
Craig Houin (16:33):
The biggest challenge we're going to have is not necessarily flying the fields, because we can fly three or four fields at a time with that PHX. And then when we bring it in, we already have the boundaries in the software, so we can buffer the boundary and make sure we only get points at each boundary instead of having too much carryover. So that's an easy part. The challenge is being able to upload the data, make it visible to our sales agronomist or our solutions advisors, make sure it's available and visible for the growers in a timely manner. So those are the big challenge points I think we're going to have is not necessarily collecting the data, but being able to communicate what the data says in a fashion that's understood, and they can make decisions off of it in a timely manner. So being able to pump that much data up into the cloud and do that will be the big challenge.
Morgan Seger (17:33):
Okay, sure. Especially when you're trying to make really timely decisions like replant. Because I think stand counts and that kind of early-season diagnostic tool has always been kind of our thought process with drones, but it feels like we were always too busy. So when we would fly, it was in the summer. And we're not making as urgent of decisions. Sometimes we still are making management decisions. But yeah, so I can definitely see the data processing and then speed of getting it communicated. Because it sounds like the software you guys are working with has really increased the speed. It's not like you're stitching together all the images and doing all of that really labor-intensive work manually –
Craig Houin (18:14):
Morgan Seger (18:14):
... and before you can make a decision.
Craig Houin (18:18):
Right, right. You can stitch that right in the software, and that works just fine to do that. It makes a much nicer image to look at because it's really clean.
Craig Houin (18:28):
If the grower and the ASA are with us, they could view it right on our laptops. The challenge is if they're not with us, we have to move that into their device. Whether it be an app on your phone or iPad, it's got to be in the cloud.
Craig Houin (18:44):
And like I said, you're talking about gigabytes of data. It could take... In my part of the state, if I'm in a good neighborhood, it doesn't take that long, it would still be a half an hour or so. But if I'm home with rural internet that we have, it can take awhile, and I'm talking hours. So just being able to move that so that it's visible on other devices for people on our team, on our precision team or people in our sales, agronomy sales teams, or even our growers, that's going to be the challenge.
Morgan Seger (19:19):
Well, I'm excited to see how you guys come out of this and your thoughts here after the end of the season. Do you have plans to go back in once we have these replant decisions made maybe later in the season and do stand counts?
Craig Houin (19:34):
Yeah. Yeah. I think once we get rolling with this, we're going to... I know for a fact there's going to be some farms that we work with that are going to look for reasons to fly. You know what I mean?
Craig Houin (19:51):
And I know some salespeople and our solutions advisors have worked with our agronomy customers. They're probably going to be the same way. Once they see the value of the information they're getting there, they say, "Hey, can you fly? We might have some weeds over here we need to look at." So I have a feeling it's going to grow.
Craig Houin (20:10):
It's my responsibility and the responsibility on the team that I get to work with to make sure we don't overwhelm the system and that we stay in our lane. Because we do have a program in place. We have to make sure that we stick with it and we're doing stand counts. We have some other trials out there that we will do more flights over throughout the season. But as far as what this program is about, this test that we're doing, to make sure we stay in our lane and don't clutter the system too much, and be able to determine if we can scale this or not.
Morgan Seger (20:45):
Yeah, yeah. Keeping it clean like that is going to be the key indicator on whether or not you'll be able to move forward and really make this work for your system. So I'm excited to see it. I'm also excited to see the trials that you're taking pictures of. I know we had talked a little bit before, that you might be doing some variable rate hybrid trials. So hopefully we can have you back on once you have some of that data and we can kind of talk through that, because I think that's something that is super interesting and very complex.
Craig Houin (21:12):
It's more complex than you can imagine. Yeah, it definitely is –
Morgan Seger (21:15):
Yeah, multiple hybrid variable rate scripts, I guess, is what I should say, to clarify.
Craig Houin (21:21):
That's right. That's right. It definitely expands the conversation, but it also expands the number of people in that conversation. So it's going to be fun to learn that one.
Morgan Seger (21:31):
Good, good. Well, I'm looking forward to it. Thank you so much for taking time to talk us through your drone project you have going on, and we can't wait to hear from you again.
Craig Houin (21:39):
All right, appreciate it. Yeah, take care.
Morgan Seger (21:42):
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Precision Points. Like you heard us talk about there at the end, we do have some exciting information coming about a multiple hybrid variable rate seeding prescription trial that they are working on this year. So I hope they get some good data from their trials and that we can have him on later to kind of highlight the thought process that they had to go through to create those scripts and then what the final impact was.
Morgan Seger (22:05):
We are well into the growing season now, and we have some exciting in-season topics coming up. So make sure you hit that subscribe button so you don't miss a thing.
Morgan Seger (22:13):
We also invite you to go to precisionagreviews.com. That's where we post our show notes, expert advice on our blog, and you can access grower-sourced reviews on all precision ag products and services. Thanks again for tuning in. We are so grateful that you spent this time with us. Let's grow together.
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Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail – specifically in ag tech – prior to hosting the Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog, Heart and Soil, where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Craig Houin
Craig grew up on a small grain and livestock farm, which eventually led him to Purdue University to study Agricultural Economics. Following college, he moved to Ohio with his wife, where they started a small livestock farm with their three kids. Craig strives to grow precision technologies on the farm level through interactions with farmers and technology providers. He firmly believes precision technologies will improve farm-level decisions through the understanding of current practices to improve environmental and economic impacts while helping the consumer's understanding of agriculture.