Drones are no longer just for scouting crops. With thermal imaging cameras, producers can use them to scout cattle as well.

Chris Beerman, manager for Aerial Agronomics based in Sheldon, Mo., said thermal cameras are different from near-infrared cameras used for crop scouting. NIR cameras capture light reflected by plants. Thermal imaging cameras read thermal radiation and turn it into a visible picture.

“Thermal cameras on drones can normalize the background heat signatures like the ground and plants,” Beerman said.

A drone operator can set a base temperature on a thermal camera to show only heat signatures above that level. Different colors represent temperature fluctuation on the camera. This makes a thermal camera a useful tool for cattle producers.

Producers can use thermal cameras on drones to find cattle today. However, very few producers are doing this because it's still a new practice.

“The nice thing about thermal cameras with cattle is it makes it easier to find them. Especially in the trees — they stick out like a sore thumb,” said Ray Asebedo, Kansas State University assistant professor in precision agriculture.

At a Kansas State University stocker field day, Asebedo described his work on algorithms that will allow drones to do everything on their own. They will know where to fly, what to look for and when to alert producers to problems.

He works with China-based drone manufacturer Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) to create software algorithms for crop and cattle scouting. These algorithms control drone functions that have a direct application for agriculture.

Drone in training

To prepare a drone to scout cattle, Asebedo has to teach the drone what a cow looks like.

“We’re working on an algorithm to identify an object as a cow rather than a deer or similar animal. It’s like teaching kids what an animal looks like and what it does,” he said.

Exposing a drone to images of cows in various situations teaches drones what to look for.

Asebedo then shows the drone pictures with no animals and pictures of a different animal. This process trains the drone to understand specifics.

“It’s of no use if it misidentifies a calf as a deer,” he said.

Next, Asebedo wants the drone to find sick cattle. A thermal camera will allow a drone to see a cow’s heat signature. If the animal has an unusual body temperature, the camera will recognize it.

“If we couple that with a more complex algorithm, it could identify cattle behavior and determine if the animal is acting abnormal,” he said.

This application could be quite useful, especially during calving. By understanding how heat signatures relate to animal behavior, the drone could find the cow and evaluate her situation. It would recognize her symptoms and notify the owner if she was sick or about to calve.

If the drone was set to fly on a frequent basis, a producer could be notified sooner and have a faster response time.

Longer flights ahead

Current regulations allow operation of a drone only within a direct line of sight of the pilot, so a person must oversee the drone operations at all times.

Asebedo believes by the time his more advanced algorithms are complete, automated flying will be legal. This will allow the operator to be elsewhere while the drone flies independently.

“The new drone platforms on the horizon are pushing 50 minutes” of flying time, he said. “Once we get 50 minutes to one hour, that will be fantastic. Drone flight capacities for scouting will be more suitable for large pastures.”

Automated flying with longer battery life means more coverage in shorter time.

Asebedo advised any producer who is new to drones to start with a simple machine and get used to flying it before stepping up to a model that uses a thermal camera. In the DJI line, he suggested starting with a Phantom 3, then moving up to a drone with a thermal camera. He said a good setup with a thermal camera will cost about $2,000.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations require drone operators to get a remote pilot’s license. Certification includes a written exam covering airspace rules and common flying knowledge. Producers can visit www.faa.gov/uas for more information.