The use of aerial imagery is becoming more prevalent in the agricultural industry as more farmers try to utilize the technology to enhance the quality of their crops.
TerrAvion Inc., based out of San Leandro, is just one of many companies that offer this technology. The company has roughly 20 to 25 clients in the Lodi area and the vineyards they serve in San Joaquin County range from around 20 acres to thousands of acres.
According to TerrAvion’s Jason Zeng, the company provides aerial imagery for agriculture by flying small planes over large fields. They partner with flight providers to fly a sensor that captures color — infrared and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) imagery — to give growers an up-to-date picture of their crops along with a synthetic map and analysis.
The technology lets farmers highlight areas in their fields very quickly, Zeng said, allowing them to differentiate between what crops are growing healthy and what crops may be diseased
“This allows farmers to tell if there is a disease going on in the field, if there is a water issue, if a certain area needs extra fungicide or fertilizer,” Zeng said. “It makes it very easy to see what is going on in their field.”
Once the data is collected, it is integrated with the programs that growers use to optimize their operations, Zeng said.
“Growers are looking for a way to really optimize their time, so having regular imagery come to you is a way for you to prioritize where to pay attention to problematic areas in your field,” said Brandon Udelhofen, TerrAvion’s regional vice president for Northern California . “It’s a way to drive quality for the production.”
“Lets say you have 100 acres,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to go out there and try to figure out what’s going on. You barely see stuff from the ground but if you have aerial imagery, you could basically do the whole thing in about 30 minutes a day. It really increases how quickly you find errors in your field.”
Udelhofen said that the technology could also be helpful with the labor shortage.
“Increasingly we find there is this climate of labor shortages in California and we feel like this is an additional tool for those who are having a hard time getting labor to address those concerns,” he said.
According to Zeng and Udelhofen, similar technology is used in agriculture all across the United States.
“Aerial imagery itself is not new in agriculture,” Udelhofen said. “Historically people used satellite dishes. What’s new and novel about our product is that we provide lots of images at a really cheap price, so it becomes very affordable for the grower to buy this imagery in bulk and get lots of images at a cheap price at a much higher resolution than what a satellite dish would offer.”
Local grape grower Charlie Starr, who farms his own vineyard along with consulting work for other vineyards, said he and some of his clients are using TerrAvion. He said he’s also trying out a new company called Ceres Imagery which offers a similar service.
According to Starr, growers are still trying to figure out how aerial imagery can be beneficial to making their jobs easier.
“Even though aerial imagery has been around for a while, we‘re still trying to quantify the return on investment of that imagery,” Starr said. “We haven’t dialed it down yet to say ‘Okay, here is an image and this is how we’re going to make the changes and profit from those changes.’ There is still kind of a disconnect from there.”
Starr suggested that the imagery is better suited for long-term management decisions. He said if growers wanted to replant a field, the technology allows them to see where crops are consistently weak or strong and they could design an irrigation system based on past images.
Starr said that TerrAvion is a good company but there are other companies that provide aerial imagery as well.
He said TerrAvion currently provides pictures in red, blue and green along with an infrared picture. When the two are combined they create a NDVI image which can tell the grower how much stress is on a plant. The infrared light absorbs into a stressed plant differently than a healthy plant. He said that while this can be helpful, there is also a whole light spectrum that hasn’t been used, and companies as well as universities are researching ways to use those others bands of light to image specific criteria such as viruses in grape vines. Viruses turn the leaves red and affect the quality of the grapes and wines they produce.
“We would like to be able to identify those vines on a yearly basis to see how much it’s spreading,” he said.