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DroneDeploy's real-time scouting of fields live, for Apple platforms

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As drones become more common as an agricultural tool, new methods to use their potential are being developed.

DroneDeploy, a drone mapping software platform, announced last month the release of Live Map, a software feature that instantly renders maps on a mobile iOS (Apple operating system) device, such as iPhone or iPad, using input from a DJI drone – while it is flying over the field.

“As of now, we have the only drone software that is able to produce instant maps without an Internet connection using a DJI drone,” said Kyle Miller, business development manager of DroneDeploy, based in San Francisco. “Farmers can actually start to ground truth the field, whereas before they would have to go back to the computer and upload the imagery.”

With the app for Live Map, farmers can select a field or portion of a field, fly the drone and receive real-time mapping, which includes options for a 3-D model, a higher-resolution 2-D map, plant health and elevation. The maps can be shared with collaborators via cloud syncing.

Miller said this app will save farmers time as they assess their fields for plant stress and make management decisions. He also said the map can help livestock farmers monitor their pastures with its live-count feature, which could be used to count cattle or plants.

“Farmers can stay out in the field and figure out what they may have missed before the problem gets worse,” he explained.

He added that this software is an improvement on an earlier software by DroneDeploy that produced maps. “This is much better at detecting what the problem is. Live Map can detect any type of stress, whether it’s weed pressure, insects or water stress, giving farmers a lot better insight into the whole field.”

DroneDeploy was begun in 2013 to focus on software applications for drones. Miller said the company is the world leader in the drone software technology field, with more than 25 million acres in 160 countries mapped by its customers.

The main benefit to farmers in using this technology is its immediate ability to spot potential problem areas in a field, thus using the drone like an aerial scout, said Dharmendra Saraswat, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.

Not having seen the technology yet, Saraswat said if Live Map does what it claims, it would be a good tool for farmers.

“What they are doing is pretty clever technology. Farmers are immediately interested in how a field looks. Basically it is a flying scout with the objective of getting feedback on farm conditions,” he said.

Possible applications of the Live Map are to quickly find problems that are not easily observable otherwise or to assess the extent of damage from flooding or other disasters. However, the image would not be large enough to answer more in-depth questions or provide research, he noted.

The reason for this is the current lack of processing power by mobile devices, he explained. “It cannot give you the whole ‘watermelon,’ but the software can give you a slice of it before you have a better option. As farmers, they can have that satisfaction that they are able to see and spot places that may need additional attention,” Saraswat added.

Miller said DJI drones produce high-resolution maps with each pixel at 2 inches or less, which is enough to spot a problem for further investigation.

On its website at the company states it is still working to develop Live Map software that will be compatible with Android operating system devices. The cost for service is $90 per month, with a 30-day free trial available.

“Live Map is really the re-imagining of Drone Mapping. There’s no SD cards, no uploads and no waiting,” said Mike Winn, CEO of DroneDeploy. “Now our customers, from across any industry, can get the data they need, immediately providing the instant insights and enabling them to make real time decisions, right in the field."

Since the original inception of Live Map, mobile devices have doubled in computational power, allowing DroneDeploy to improve map quality using the latest devices and state-of-the-art computer vision algorithms, he said. The software will work with 2016 iOS devices or newer, and DJI Phantom 4 Drones or newer.

Miller predicted his company will continue to develop more precise software to detect and analyze field problems in the future. He sees no end to possible drone applications, such as spot spraying for weeds and pests in agriculture, and multiple software applications in other industries, such as solar, construction, mining and real estate, as well as fire and rescue operations.

In the last five years, drones have come down in price from as high as $40,000 to an average of $1,000-$1,500, Miller said, making them more affordable for farmers, businesses and individuals.

“We see changes every day. We mapped 10 million acres last year, and that number is doubling or tripling every year. Agronomists and co-ops are using drones, and individual farmers are flying drones in their own field,” he noted.

DroneDeploy will host a free webinar on how to spot crop variability, identify pests and disease and assess storm damage using its software, on March 8 at 2 p.m. EST. To register, go to its website or Facebook page.