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Soil scientist launching drone business to boost farmers’ crop yields

Soil scientist launching drone business to boost farmers’ crop yields

 

Drone’s work could be expanded to uses outside agriculture

Eyes in the sky

Erin McCracken Riverview Park resident Erik Apedaile is planning to launch his drone business next spring to provide farmers with data about their fields in an effort to help boost crop yields.

Bird’s eye view

Erin McCracken Hundreds of images taken by a camera mounted on Riverview Park resident Erik Apedaile’s drone are stitched together by specialized computer software. The images can reveal important information farmers can use to better manage their crops and boost yields, Apedaile says. next play/pause pre Ottawa South News By Erin McCracken

Armed with a high-tech remote control and expertise in soil, Riverview Park resident Erik Apedaile pilots his drone over farmers’ fields, capturing photographs, and along with them, answers that can help boost crop yields.

The soil scientist and owner of Apedaile Environmental is using unmanned aerial vehicle technology to get a bird’s eye view of agricultural land. Using specialized sensors mounted on his drone, he can pinpoint sections that may be lacking in nitrogen a crucial ingredient needed for maximum corn crop health.

The agrologist’s strength is in soil management and soil nutrients, but with the purchase of his first drone three years ago, he has taken his expertise to a whole new high-tech level.

Apedaile has already tested the drone’s abilities, flying it on missions and bringing back important data ahead of his plan to launch his drone business next spring.

“My thinking is we can diagnose some of these problems from the air relatively cheaply. It helps us make interpretations about plants.
-Erik Apedaile, agrologist

So far so good, Apedaile said of the results.

There are Ottawa agrologists who do crop consultations, but Apedaile said he is the only one in his field in the area who has eyes in the sky.

During each flight, the drone flies back and forth for 17 minutes or 25 acres at a time, snapping a photo every four to five seconds and bringing back a batch of 400 individual shots.

Once downloaded, specialized software does the job of stitching the photos together into a mosaic, each one of them mapped with a GPS reference to the location where the photo was taken.

So we can overlay information on top of information on top of information, Apedaile said.

His work consulting on the City of Ottawa’s biosolids program is what propelled him towards drone technology.

While his business partner is responsible for spreading sewage sludge on farmers’ fields for free in eastern Ontario, from West Carleton, north to the Quebec border, east to Saint Isodore and south to Cornwall, Apedaile provides the agronomic know-how, doing regulatory work, providing nutrient management planning, acquiring proper certificates, notifying residents about spreadings and conducting well-testing.

When applied to farmers’ fields, biosolids offer a significant source of nitrogen, which represents a cost-savings for farmers, Apedaile said.

When you grow corn, you need a lot of nitrogen and so they’re able to supplement their nitrogen with this.

DETECTION FROM THE SKY

By equipping his drone with specialized agrology-related sensors and cameras, Apedaile’s technology can detect whether a plant needs additional nitrogen.

Not only that, but maybe some areas of the field needed more and some needed less. My thinking is we can diagnose some of these problems from the air relatively cheaply.

It helps us make interpretations about plants.

Others in this area of expertise have been using drones to identify other agricultural issues from above, such as in grape vines, as well as determine whether there are nutrient issues and the amount of water needed.

While Apedaile is concentrating on using his drones on farmers’ fields, drones can also be used to photograph and map large algae blooms a need identified by Apedaile.

RULES AND REGULATIONS

Operating a drone is about more than just grabbing a set of controls and launching an expensive piece of machinery into the air.

If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it properly, said Apedaile.

It looks simple from the outside what we do, but it’s extremely complex. When you’re flying in airspace that could potentially be used by other aircraft whether manned or unmanned aircraft you can’t fool around with that.

For that reason, he has learned drone maintenance, achieved the proper drone certifications and follows all flight rules.

Vanier resident Tim Watson, a geographic information system technician, serves as Apedaile’s spotter in the field a crucial second set of eyes.

It’s really important that we follow the rules because there’s a public perception of drones and all that people are doing with them, Apedaile said.

If we want to do this, we have to do it properly.

In addition to securing clients come spring, the agrologist hopes to eventually grow his drone enterprise, possibly add more drones, including a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle, which would be able to fly for longer periods of time.

With his combined soil and high-tech expertise, Apedaile said he wants to provide farmers with the answers they might otherwise never know.

I think the fun part would be creating something for a client that’s really going to help them do better at what they’re doing, he said.

I’m not interested in just taking pretty pictures for people.

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