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Precision Profile: Actionable Data Takes Ag Drones to New Heights

Name: Nathan Stein

Farm: Stein Family Farms

Location: Barnum, Iowa

Size: 1,300 acres

Crops Grown: Corn and Soybeans

Valuable Tech Tools: Pix4D Fields, DJI Agras T30 Drone

Precision Pain Point: Leveraging ag drone experience to make proactive, accurate on-farm decisions

Actionable Data Takes Ag Drones to New Heights

After a decade of learning, Iowa farmer Nathan Stein is applying that knowledge to precisely identify pest “hot spots” and plan for aerial spot spraying.

When Tom Petty’s song “Learning to Fly” debuted in 1991, Nathan Stein was only eight years old. But the tune’s title appropriately sums up the educational experience the fifth-generation Iowa farmer has acquired during the last decade with ag drones.

“It’s been ten years of flying and learning. Now with advancements in tools, it's time for the next evolution of application on our farm,” Stein says. “When I started using the technology, it couldn’t process images very quickly or have the scouting capabilities built into today’s systems.”

One of Stein’s early initiatives with ag drones was in 2014, flying a SenseFly eBee model to locate drain tiles. He had just launched a precision ag business and was looking for an economical solution to collect and analyze moisture retention data to write more accurate variable-rate seeding prescriptions.

“I needed to understand where and how water drained in the soil to be able to make better decisions on seeding populations,” Stein says. “At the time, I couldn’t get the proper resolution from a satellite image or pay for a manned aircraft to fly the field and take the exact picture I wanted. The near-infrared imagery collected by the drone detected changes in soil color for wetter and drying areas when I needed them.”

Back then, the sky was the limit - pun intended - for ag drones to be affordable, efficient tools for capturing timely, detailed imagery. But processing and stitching together the imagery was a tedious, time-consuming, and often expensive task.

Stein recalls the 8-hour processing times that often started at night and continued into the next morning, along with the suite of technology needed to get the job done. “I invested close to $50,000 in computers, servers, and software, and it was a pain,” he says.

Despite the early challenges, Stein saw the promise of drone technology as it matured to become a progressively valuable farm tool in his family’s 1,300-acre corn and soybean operation and beyond.

Educational Experience

Advancements in drone technology, specifically software platforms, have simplified and streamlined, turning images into actionable information.

What used to take 8 hours can now be done in 10-15 minutes. For Stein, who splits time between the family farm and as senior business development manager for Pix4D Agriculture, the developments of the last decade have reduced the learning curve for entry-level adopters and allowed experienced users to find new ways to apply the technology.

In 2019, Stein flew a Parrot Bluegrass quadcopter equipped with a multispectral camera to capture imagery of an aphid infestation in one of their soybean fields. Using the Pix4DFields platform to process the imagery and a vegetation index he created, Stein was able to pinpoint hot spots in the field.

“Based on the imagery, I walked to the problem areas, and they were loaded with aphid carcasses and dense populations,” he says. “Unfortunately, the plants were past the flowering stage, and it was too late to reverse the damage. But knowing we can be that precise with identifying an infestation will allow us to get into a field earlier in the future.”

Target Practice

Ideally, Stein wants to leverage drone data to be more proactive in preventing problems in the field. Targeted aerial applications are the next step for Stein, who hopes to use a DJI Agras T30 model and create prescriptions to spot spray problematic weeds or apply in-crop nutrients in specific areas.

“Nobody wants to fine-tune a prescription and drive a big sprayer into the field for two spot applications,” he says. “If it’s 50% of the field, a sprayer makes sense, but when you get down to that 10-20% part of a field, I’m looking for a more efficient, economical option.

“If it rains for two weeks and there’s no way to get a sprayer in the field, even if it takes several hours to get timely applications done with a 30-liter tank on a drone, it’s going to be better than doing nothing.”

Pick up more tips from Stein in an ongoing series of instructional videos on making the most of ag drone technology.

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Photos courtesy of Pix4D

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