Drone Systems 101
Get a quick overview of key considerations for choosing a drone system. Sensor types, flight considerations, data analysis—we break it down to help you start making more informed decisions and driving results today.
Let Your Confidence Soar: How To Choose Sensors and Drones
If you’re new to remote sensing, multispectral sensors or drone operations, this blog post is the place to start. Below we’ll guide you through the fundamental considerations when choosing a drone system to ensure your operations are a success. Whether you’re a retail agronomist supporting hundreds of growers or an academic researcher performing plot trials, Sentera as a system to meet your needs.
Sensor Capability: RGB, Multispectral, Thermal
At the end of the day, the most important consideration is what you want to accomplish with the data you collect from your drone missions. Each drone system provides unique capabilities, and it’s critical to understand what data will best help you achieve your desired outcomes.
Red, Green, Blue (RGB)
The most widely collected drone data is visual color RGB. Images produced in RGB format appear as you would see them with the naked eye, and most commercial drones come equipped with a RGB camera. Drone platforms like the DJI Phantom and Mavic series offer very capable RGB cameras that deliver high-quality, high-resolution photographs that can be used to create field maps and perform many RGB-based analytics such as stand and tassel count.
If you’re planning to operate a drone that isn’t equipped with a stock RGB camera—such as the DJI Matrice 300—the Sentera 6X, 6X Thermal and Double 4K sensors are also offered with high resolution RGB cameras. All can collect the photographs needed to create maps and perform analytics. For applications requiring additional clarity, the Double 4K can be equipped with a 4X zoom RGB camera to get the most detailed view of a targeted area.
While RGB data can be used to provide a great deal of agronomic insight, there’s a lot more to learn about plant health by looking at things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Knowing how vegetation reflects light in near infrared spectrums, for example, can give a more accurate picture of crop conditions. Collecting this type of data requires specially configured cameras, and Sentera offers a variety of solutions to meet these needs.
Sentera Single and Double 4K sensor systems are both equipped to provide the most common crop health imagery and maps using multispectral data. The Single offers NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) or NDRE (Normalized Difference Red Edge) crop health photos while the Double 4K, our most popular sensor, sports two cameras with several multispectral configuration options.
For the most precise spectral data, look no further than the Sentera 6X. The 6X is equipped with five multispectral cameras—each dedicated to an exact spectral region—plus a RGB camera for a total of six cameras in one housing.
In cases where the most repeatable, highest precision analysis is required, calibrated multispectral data may be required. Common applications include seed performance and academic research.
For this kind of agronomic insight, we recommend our 6X family of sensors paired with an incident light sensor and calibrated reflectance panel. By referencing your sensor data to a known reflectance standard, you can accurately translate your camera data to the true reflectance of the crop. The incident light sensor constantly monitors the ambient lighting condition, ensuring that any atmospheric changes that happen during flight are also observed and accounted for.
Often, the first signs of plant stress appear in the thermal long wave infrared (LWIR) spectrum and this data can also be particularly useful in identifying irrigation issues and characterizing moisture content. If thermal data is required for your application, the 6X Thermal is the right tool for the job. A data collection powerhouse, the 6X Thermal simultaneously delivers high-resolution RGB images, four precise monochrome images and thermal images all in one package.
An early consideration when selecting your drone system is the amount of area you expect to cover. For smaller operations, an entry-level multi-rotor drone like the DJI Phantom or Mavic should be sufficient to meet your needs. For larger operations where coverage is key, a larger multi-rotor or possibly a fixed-wing drone could be required. The DJI Matrice 300 series multirotor offers a significant flight endurance increase over the smaller Phantom or Mavic solutions. The Sentera PHX drone, our fixed-wing offering, reaps the benefits of more efficient flight when compared to its multirotor counterparts and, as a result, boasts the longest endurance and greatest coverage of any drone system in its class. For operations looking to cover the maximum number of acres, the PHX is the clear choice.
Something to always keep in mind when selecting your system is physical size, weight and portability. These can vary significantly between systems. If you have limitations on capacity, either for storage or in your transportation vehicle or because you need to walk long distances to an operating location, you might be more inclined to opt for a smaller footprint vehicle such as a Mavic or Phantom. The collapsible Mavic drone is by far the smallest and lightest option, capable of being stored in a backpack. On the other end, the DJI M300 is the largest system and has a max takeoff weight around 20 lbs. Choose accordingly to avoid packing and/or transport difficulties.
Lastly, it is critical to understand the differences of flight operations, particularly between fixed-wing and multirotor platforms. While fixed-wing vehicles offer many benefits, particularly regarding flight time and coverage, there are many operational constraints to be aware of.
Most significantly, they demand more time and forethought for planning ahead to know where you’ll launch and land the drone. Rather than climbing and descending vertically, a fixed-wing drone like the Sentera PHX launches and lands following a set climb or descent slope trajectory. When choosing a launch/landing zone, therefore, an operator must be aware of surrounding obstructions such as trees or utility lines and plan accordingly to avoid them. Wind is also a consideration that can drive mission planning, as a fixed wing drone is always best launched and landed into the wind. And finally, after gliding in for a landing, the Sentera PHX will skid to a halt on the ground. To reduce the likelihood of damage to the aircraft, it’s important to choose a landing zone that offers the best conditions for the skid landing—flat terrain, preferably without rocks or gravel and one with limited obstructions.
Sentera offers comprehensive training for the Sentera PHX to ensure you can operate safely and successfully. Fixed-wing aerial platforms do require more experience to operate, but there are significant advantages too. Our training programs can help operators gain confidence in their skills.
Data Viewing and Analysis
Regardless of your drone or sensor choice, you can quickly and easily view images and maps in our Field Agent application or tool of your choice. All imagery is formatted for easy import and interpretation in common post-processing tools, such as Pix4D and Agisoft Metashape.
Explore Drone Systems
Get holistic agronomic insights with a field-tested aerial platform from Sentera. We offer several options to fit your business, including our Sentera PHX fixed-wing drone and DJI drones with upgraded sensors to capture NDVI, NDRE and RGB imagery without an internet connection. Already own a DJI drone? We can help you upgrade.
For the most demanding remote sensing needs, this is it. Get five-band calibrated, multispectral data and high-resolution RGB insights for full spatial analytics. Supports small-plot, spot-scout and broad-acre applications.
Here’s the best solution for broad-acre coverage. Fly with confidence to meet full season demands of crop health mapping as well as early and late season yield estimates.
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“When tassels emerge in the later part of the season, we can go fly a field and get a report back that says what the tassel counts are across the field; they’re very, very accurate.”Matt Larson Sales Agronomist, CHS - Holdredge