What I Learned From 500 Professional Drone Flights — With Cesar Urrutia of SPACEDAT, Peru

Agricultural data experts, SPACEDAT of Peru, recently reached an enviable drone milestone: 500 successful drone flights completed. Waypoint met the company’s founder, Cesar Urrutia, to discuss what he has learned during this multitude of missions.

Hi Cesar. For those who didn’t hear of SPACEDAT before, could you give us an executive summary of what the company does?

Sure. We offer reliable yield estimation for farmers of specialty crops, using data captured by drones and ground-based cameras.

We basically identified that farmers of specialty crops—we mainly work with blueberries and avocados—don’t have a reliable method of estimating yields before harvest, or of detecting anomalies in time to correct them. We are trying to solve this problem by integrating data from the farmers’ systems with drone data, captured with infrared and thermal cameras, and with ground-level data collected by moving cameras attached to tractors, in order to build yield monitoring and predictive models that help farmers make better decisions, optimise their inputs and increase their yields.

You’ve now completed 500 commercial drone flights using SPACEDAT’s eBee drone. What are the top three things you’ve learned from these commercial drone missions?

First, have a protocol, a check list that you run through before each flight in order to avoid human error. Most likely, if there is a problem during the flight, the chances are that something wasn’t planned well.

First, have a protocol. Second, never underestimate the weather. Third, take care of your batteries.

Related to this, fly safe. Always have someone controlling the flight on the computer and at least one other person taking care of the take-off and landing. Also, dedicate some time to your flight planning before arriving on the site and then fine-tune this plan once in the field. And double check your landing point—be mentally prepared to go into manual mode if needed.

Cesar_SPACEDAT_professional_drone_500_banner_trees One of SPACEDAT’s projects has been the monitoring of avocado trees in order to help one client identify dead trees and, more importantly, to provide a yield forecast model based on leaf area and plant chlorophyll levels.

Second, never underestimate the weather conditions and the terrain around your landing area. What we’ve learned specifically, is…

– We avoid trying to land on bumpy ground or in mountainous regions if you can.

– We’ve found that linear landings, as opposed to circular landings, work best.

– We try to fly early in the morning and stop when the wind becomes an issue.

– Sometimes trying to fly for 30 more minutes actually doubles your image processing time and can degrade the quality of your work.

– Try to be careful when the sun is right above you, since this can create a glare effect on your drone’s images.

– If you can, take advantage instead of clear skies or complete cloud cover for uniform coverages.

Cesar_SPACEDAT_professional_drone_500_banner (14) The near-infrared image on the left shows a field of blueberries, where vegetation displays as red. The image on the right is a vegetation index map of the same field, in which red shows areas of no vegetation, yellow shows low levels of chlorophyll, and green shows high chlorophyll levels. “It’s interesting to see that the lines of blueberries are not uniform,” Cesar says. “This means there is some kind of stress, which can be validated in situ to understand whether this is due to a water deficiency, lack of nutrients, a different soil type or is maybe due to insects.”

Third, take care of your batteries and replace them when needed. When covering big areas always have a battery converter in your car in order to keep batteries well charged. Also, always check the drone’s propeller and pitot tube after each flight and replace the eBee’s rubber motor bands from time to time. If possible, always land against the wind, never with the wind.

Watch a CNN segment (in Spanish) about SPACEDAT’s agricultural work:

What types of flight were these 500 missions? Who were your clients, what cameras were you flying, and with what results?

We have tried all the available senseFly camera payloads. We fly, for example, an RGB camera to generate high-resolution cartography, a near-infrared (NIR) camera for generating vegetation indexes for agriculture, and we’ve used senseFly’s thermoMAP to detect water stress in fields and to monitor temperature changes at a thermoelectrical plant.

Cesar_SPACEDAT_professional_drone_500_thermoelectric A SPACEDAT heat map of a thermoelectric plant, derived from senseFly thermoMAP camera data: blue shows areas of the lowest temperature, orange and brown areas the highest.

This past year we created SPACE AG with my partner Guillermo De Vivanco, a spin-off company that works only in precision ag, using the processed information from the drone—such as chlorophyll levels and leaf area indices—to estimate the yield of blueberries and avocados.

What was the most interesting or eye-opening experience that occurred during your 500 flights? Did anything weird or unexpected happen?

It’s more about rewarding moments really. We helped the government during a recent El Niño event by providing high-resolution cartography and 3D maps of northern Peru during the flooding.

Sleep next to your drone and take care of him, so that he will take care of you.

This humanitarian project was challenging because there were no dry areas in which to land, so we had to cover our eBee with tape and land on a wet spot. We also had to constantly coordinate our operations the military because the air traffic was so heavily crowded with helicopters and rescuers.

SPACEDAT_500_professional_drone_flights_3D This SPACEDAT 3D model shows several Peruvian dams that were seriously damaged by a Niño-derived landslide.

What advice would you give to other commercial drone operators in order that they could achieve 500 successful drone flights too?

Sleep next to your drone and take care of him, so that he will take care of you.

Great stuff. Thanks for the learnings Cesar.

You’re very welcome!

Cesar_SPACEDAT_professional_drone_500_banner_kids Flying Catacaos with Cesar’s friends from UAV Peru.