Aerial imaging for large-scale agriculture
Agriculture (AKA farming) is a major industry in the United States today and a great many farms are very large in nature. In order for the large-scale farmer to keep tabs on their huge expanse of land, it is helpful to survey his entire property at least once monthly. This is especially valuable after weather events to determine if there has been any crop damage. It is also helpful for planning maintenance of fields, fertilizer, pesticide prescriptions, tracking growth of crops, determining yield analysis, and to determine the optimum time to harvest.
Since the availability of inexpensive digital cameras, farmers are now able to hire special mapping services to fly over their property and record images affordably. This is much easier and more efficient than having to patrol their farmland on foot, by land vehicle or drone (although there are farmers that use their own small aircraft). Most major mapping services provide not only images of the entire property, but they also process the raw images into an easily understandable form. Most of these services have an agronomist (a “plant doctor” with scientific training) on staff or as a consultant to help the farmers interpret the images and determine their “agronomy needs.” These services provide vital information to the farmers. They depend on this image analysis and these mapping services to get the best performance from their farms.
A new housing concept for DSLRs
All the aircraft used by these services have to be inspected by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to make sure they are safe and the pilots have to be licensed by the FAA. Otherwise, these services cannot operate. Until recently, the aircraft used for this type of mapping had to be permanently fitted with special apparatus to hold the imaging equipment. This apparatus required special modification to the aircraft and was quite costly. Yet, this had to be done in order for the service to get FAA approval to do this agricultural mapping.
Mr. Mark Zaller, formerly of SkyIMD, and his co-workers in northern California have invented a portable housing which, along with a DSLR, revolutionizes and simplifies the process of mounting a camera on a small aircraft (usually a Cessna 172 or similar plane) for the purpose of agricultural mapping. While this housing works with several models of Canon, Nikon or Sony DSLR cameras, Mr. Zaller’s original camera of choice was the Canon EOS 6D. Mr. Zaller chose the EOS 6D because the images were very clear and accurate and the camera was easy to use in his housing. Also, the EOS 6D has a built-in GPS system, which is necessary for this type of work.
Mr. Zaller’s camera and housing combination is a real breakthrough for the Agricultural Mapping Service industry. The owners of the aircraft used for mapping no longer have to permanently modify their aircraft. Once a mechanic installs the camera in the housing, the entire unit (camera + housing) can be easily removed by the pilot or owner of the airplane and shifted from plane to plane. Most mapping service companies are large operations and either own or have access to many small independently owned planes. This allows for easy camera/housing movement and therefore drastically reduces the cost to install and use the camera. Most importantly, this invention is small, easy, portable and certified by the FAA for agricultural mapping.
SkyIMD provides the housing and the camera together to the agricultural mapping companies. SkyIMD purchases the camera from a photo retailer and sends it off to be modified. In order to perform this special kind of near infrared imaging, the standard IR cutoff/ low pass filter in the over-the-counter DSLR must be removed and a special filter installed. For more information on the conversion filter, check out maxmax.com (the company SkyIMD uses for the conversion). The converted camera is then mounted in the housing and sold to the agricultural mapping companies to be mounted on their aircraft. This process is much simpler than ever before and is fully certified by the FAA.
50 million pixels comes to agricultural mapping
While the first breakthrough was the housing itself, the second breakthrough was combining the housing with the new 50.6 megapixel, high resolution Canon EOS 5DS or 5DS R camera. With 2 ½ times the pixel resolution and a newer, more sophisticated in-camera processor for superior processing and clarity, either version of the EOS 5DS is perfect for this application (with the optional GP-E2 GPS unit attached for proper geotagging). It allows the pilots to fly higher and cover more area. A pilot can now map 100,000 gross acres per day, instead of the roughly 60,000 possible with the lower-resolution EOS 6D. This also reduces time in the air and lowers fuel cost. The EOS 5DS models are truly perfect for this high-resolution application.
There are two other ways you can do agricultural mapping, but neither is as good as SkyIMD’s remarkable system, especially with an EOS 5DS or 5DS R attached:
- A drone (unmanned aircraft) can be used to photograph your crops, but drones can’t fly as high or cover as much area. Also, the battery life is much more limited with a drone than a Cessna aircraft. Interestingly enough, the FAA requires two people to safely watch the drone, but they only require one person to handle a camera mounted on a plane (remember the pilot is in the plane that has the camera mounted on it, while the drone pilots are on the ground). Mr. Zaller says, “A Canon EOS 5DS in an FAA approved Cessna pod provides an economically competitive alternative to drones. A Cessna captures huge areas at altitudes from over 500 feet above ground level to over 14,000 feet, with no commercial airspace restrictions.”
- An alternative solution is to use satellite mapping. There are companies who specialize in that. Satellites cover a much larger area, but are often harder to zero in on very small areas. Drawbacks to satellites are weather (bad weather means no pictures) and timing. The satellite might not be in the right position when you need the images to be taken. The bottom line is the best and most affordable way to do agricultural mapping is with an EOS 5DS or 5DS R camera in SkyIMD’s special housing, mounted on a Cessna 172 aircraft.
Future developments in high-resolution mapping imagery
SkyIMD is currently working on a larger housing for the EOS 5DS cameras, which will allow the use of two cameras. This will cover a larger area and make it more competitive with satellite systems at the lowest cost to the farmer.
SkyIMD also has other uses for this EOS 5DS + housing/Cessna combination. They use this rig to map solar panel farms, oil spills, missing nails and even cracks in the sidewalks of a large city. This is truly a winning combination.
Canon USA would like to express sincere thanks to both Mr. Mark Zaller and his colleagues at SkyIMD Corporation for their assistance with this article. Below are two aerial images from SkyIMD which illustrate the mapping concepts discussed in this article:
Figure 1 is a sample of an agricultural map, which he photographed from his plane.
Figure 2 is a photograph of the special housing with an EOS 5Ds/R camera attached.
Although SkyIMD prefers to use the EOS 5DS R, you can really use either the 5DS or 5DS R version of the camera in this case. Prior to modification, the only difference between the two models is the filter array located directly in front of the sensor. Since this filter is removed when the camera is specially modified, the results should be the same.
So, what does this all mean to the average Canon customer? It proves once again that Canon is in the forefront of technology and is the first company to produce a 50+ Megapixel “full-frame 35mm” (24 x 36 mm) sensor in an affordable and compact easy-to-use package. If the EOS 5DS and 5DS R cameras are a major breakthrough in the area of agricultural mapping, then they are surely worth your consideration for your own high-resolution photography, no matter what field of photography you are in.