This week, DroneAG ran its third Farm Drone Training Course since the program’s inception last year.
It’s a two day course that takes attendees through a step-by-step guide on drone safety, field applications and software use.
The course also has a broad, hands-on aspect, where attendees get to learn the basics of manual and autonomous flight, build their own mapping plans and practise the correct safety protocols for handling and flying a drone.
The course is run by Jack Wrangham, DroneAG’s founder and resident drone expert.
Once everyone arrived, they were given a detailed training booklet to keep and take notes on; essentially a reference for the presentation they were to be given.
We began by covering in detail, the health and safety aspects of flying a drone, followed by the main focus of the course; how to use various software applications to build plans, autonomously fly a UAS for mapping and interpret the data it captures:
Drone use varies widely from person to person; whether it be agriculture, construction, 3D modelling or something else.
In particular, we focused on DroneDeploy, a versatile app, intuitive and accessible to beginners, which allows the user to plan, capture, inspect and share useful data.
Jack took the class through the process of building their own flight plan within the software, before we ventured out into the field to fly!
Only a hundred yards or so from the classroom is the OSR field we would be flying in and mapping. Setting up on a relatively flat patch of grass, Jack talked everyone through the basic safety precautions everyone must take when preparing for a drone flight.
He took them through site surveying, hazard perception, emergency procedures, basic pre-flight checks and final flight plan adjustments to account for changes in weather, and equipment limitations.
(I’ll take this opportunity to mention that the weather could not have been more perfect, as it ALWAYS is here in the north of England… It remained warm, sunny and calm throughout both days and considering that shortly before and after this course were *ahem* RARE clouds, gusts and the occasional shower, *SHOCK, HORROR!* We were considerably lucky.)
Once we were all set up, Jack demonstrated the takeoff and landing procedures, and gave everyone a turn piloting the drone with the handset; taking off and landing under his supervision. It’s an experience that can definitely be a little intimidating the first time around, but one that can be made much easier by the calm environment you find yourself in on the course.
(It should also be noted that this course is designed for people who ideally have some prior experience handling and flying drones, it is not a full drone piloting course, though if persons on the course do not have any experience, we are happy to give them a quick run through the basics.)
We then used DroneDeploy to map the field, using the flight plan we had just created in the classroom, keeping the drone within sight at all times. (A perfect opportunity to enjoy the sun…)
Once we’d finished mapping, we discussed post-flight checks, then packed up and went back to the classroom. Jack then ran over how to process the captured images on DroneDeploy, and set the computer away, uploading them as we enjoyed a lovely lunch of sandwiches, teas and coffees, out on the patio in the blazing sunshine!
Once we were all fed and watered, it was time to talk about what to do with the data we captured, how it can be useful in all kinds of different ways, and what tools a user has at their disposal to save time, money and labour in the field.
We went over ground truthing and the diagnosis of crop health issues, how to zone a field for a treatment/application, and what to look for when comparing crop areas before going out and inspecting the field up-close.
We discussed how drone technology allows us to see things in the field we otherwise might have missed, be it colour differences, ground coverage, or damage that is only noticeable from the air. We laid out a few pinpoints in the map we had created, looking for variables that we could compare in different areas, before going out into the field again to inspect a few areas of interest.
This is the sort of data that a drone operator can share with an agronomist in order to maximise efficiency when inspecting crop health; it takes much less time and uses a lot less guesswork when trying to ensure a balanced crop.
This time, when we went to the field, we ventured into the crop itself, using the GPS location on DroneDeploy to make our way to a couple of the map markers, comparing the growth between the two locations, and cross-checking against the map, to see what was being represented there.
Sure enough, the map showed a difference between two areas that we could clearly see on the ground once we knew it was there. A hands-on segment like this clearly demonstrates how easy it can be to use this technology, to make an immediate difference in the field.
After getting a little bit of pollen on our jeans, it was time to get back to the classroom, where we had a brief recap of the first half of the course.
After a short Q&A to round off a very productive and informative first day on the course, it was time to go home, but not before we took the newly repaired spraying drone (that belonged to two of the people on the course) out for a test flight, as a bit of extracurricular fun!
The second day of the course began with perfect weather yet again and a few teas and coffees. This time we began by talking about all of the other useful tools that DroneDeploy has at its disposal.
For a couple of hours we went over how to use the program to measure distances, volumes and areas, and we began looking at the Structures Mode, which enables the user to make a three-dimensional model of a building or structure within a map, by making the drone fly a perimeter around the area, taking oblique images to get the profiles of structures, rather than just pointing its camera straight down.
You can imagine how getting a more accurate 3D model like this can be useful in construction, or in the planning of maintenance on something like a damaged roof.
We made a flight plan to take a structures map of part of the farm, before we went down to a clear area within the farm to fly it.
One of the gentlemen on the course with us brought his DJI Inspire 2 drone, a fancy piece of kit and a model I’d never seen up close before, so we decided to take it out for a quick flight.
However; one of the props hadn’t been attached prop-erly…(sorry).
In a perfect demonstration of why it is important to carefully inspect the drone before a flight; as the pilot throttled up, the loose blade flung itself twenty feet up into the air and twirled to the ground like a sycamore seed several feet away.
Luckily the drone hadn’t left the pad when this happened, or we might have witnessed an expensive accident.
Eventually we got the Inspire 2 up in the air for a nice little show, before we got the Mavic Pro to map the farm.
Once we’d enjoyed the sun for a little while longer as the drone went about its business, we had to pack up and go back to the classroom and the warm patio, to enjoy another plentiful lunch of sandwiches, flatbreads and blissfully cold sparkling water.
We set the images to upload to DroneDeploy, and chatted away for an hour or so in the glorious sunshine.
We looked at a processed map of the farm after lunch, which led us into an example of construction planning, as on the farm there is a flood barrier that was planned last year by Jack and his colleagues using drone data.
Using an elevation map of the terrain around the farm, they were able to plan a barrier that was not too big and not too small, in order to mitigate the flooding that sometimes occurred within the lower shed buildings on the farm, (as they lie on a flood plain near the river), without using too much material or spending too much time or money on labour.
One more drone application to go, and this time it was livestock monitoring.
Using a program called Litchi, Jack showed us how to fly an automated waypoint perimeter, so that a farmer can have complete control over the camera, to accomplish tasks like counting and inspecting livestock in hard-to-navigate areas, rather than doing it on a quad or on foot.
We took the Mavics out for one last flight, to demonstrate the advantages of waypoint flights.
Of course, in a feat of chance, a low-flying RAF jet roared past with very little warning, but the pilot in control lowered the drone in time, demonstrating that the safety content of this course had definitely stuck!
We headed back up to the classroom for the last time and spent the final half hour running over the booklet and reminding ourselves of the important safety procedures and the many uses of DroneDeploy, amongst other programs. Jack did a final Q&A, before we said our goodbyes and went on our way.
All in all, I had a fantastic time on the course, and felt very informed by the end of it.
Even someone who is a complete beginner should have the ability to plan, fly and process a map with a drone by the end of it.
With the hands-on aspects of the course, people can gain a good grasp of flying a drone themselves, in an environment where experts are on hand to help them with any hurdles they come across and give them one-to-one tuition in the field.
You get to meet interesting people in various lines of work, enjoy good food (and weather if you’re lucky!) and spend time in a beautiful part of England.
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