From Pre-Planting to Post-Harvest: Harnessing the Power of Drones Year Round

Sep 27, 2017 · 6 min read

In a few short weeks, the harvest will draw to a close. Listen carefully, and you’ll soon hear the collective sigh of relief coming from fields and farmhouses everywhere. Time to clean up the combine, service the tractor, and take stock of the past six months.

But wait a minute. Do we see you getting ready to put that drone away for the winter? Not so fast. If you plan to keep your UAV out of commission until next season, you might want to reconsider.

There are still plenty of ways to put your drone to work between now and April. From scouting for weeds to assessing drainage tiles, growers are increasingly using drones as an indispensable, year-round field management tool.

Here are some of the best ways to harness the power of drones all year long.

Assess Irrigation Systems and Drainage Tiles with Drone Maps

Before the ground freezes, chances are you’ll spend time repairing drainage tiles and optimizing irrigation systems. Why not make your work more efficient, and more effective, by firing up the drone first? A bare earth map is a great way to catch drainage and irrigation issues early, before they turn into bigger problems next growing season.

Subsurface drainage tiles

To best view drainage tiles, map your field in the morning after a rain, when the soil is still wet but beginning to dry out. In the RGB imagery above, the red areas are the most dry and the green areas are still relatively wet, signifying that they might not be draining as fast as the rest of the field.

An elevation map is also a useful tool here. Although a standard drone map (without the use of ground control points) shouldn’t be used to determine the actual coordinates for laying drainage tiles, it can still help you assess how a field slopes, decide if tile is needed, and make a general plan for the location and number of tiles. If you would like to incorporate ground control points (GCPs) for laying drainage tiles, be sure to read our introduction to GCPs, or sign up for our upcoming webinar to learn more.

Pivot irrigation systems

To detect potential problem areas with an above-surface irrigation system, an RGB or crop health map is ideal. Because excess water builds below the surface before any issues can be seen above ground, a lot of irrigation issues, like flat or sunken tires, or plugged nozzles, can be spotted early this way.

Use Historical Field Data to Make Smarter Crop Management Decisions

One of the best things about drones is that they allow you to analyze issues in real time, as they happen. But those same drone maps that were a life-saver at the height of the growing season are also invaluable when it comes time for a post-season debrief.

By reviewing side-by-side maps and integrating these with historical field data — such as soil type, soil sample, planting, and yield data — you gain a truly holistic view of your fields. With a greater understanding of what happened, exactly where it happened, and at what point in time, you can make smarter crop management decisions to maximize next year’s yield.

Review side-by-side maps for a historical perspective

DroneDeploy automatically organizes and stores your maps by date and geographical location, so it’s easy to track a crop’s progress over time. After the busy harvest, this is a chance to dig a little deeper into problem areas, take a closer look at patterns, and visualize how crop emergence and plant health played out through the entire growing season.

To access maps of a particular field by date flown, just click on the drop down menu on the top left of your DroneDeploy screen and choose the date you’d like to view.

Integrate drone maps with other field data

If you want to dial down even further, compare your drone maps with other information, like harvest, yield, variety, and spraying maps. All of this is done seamlessly by importing field maps from software like AgLeader SMS or John Deere Operations Center directly into DroneDeploy. Or, if you need to use the built-in tools from another platform, you can also export orthomosaic, plant health, and elevation maps.

Scan Soil to Detect Pre-Season Issues

As spring arrives and planting approaches, it’s a good idea to map your bare field one last time. A pre-season barren earth map, combined with targeted ground-truthing, can help you understand what pests and weeds have come up as a result of heavy rains or severe weather. And, if any issues do exist, you can use DroneDeploy’s plant health tools to assess how much treatment to order and where to apply it. When it comes time to plant, you’ll come back to the field with a little more confidence in its overall health.

Prepare for the Coming Months with a Seasonal Flight Plan

Just as the off season is the time to take stock of equipment, maintenance, and staffing needs, it’s also the the time to create a seasonal flight plan. Flying at regular intervals creates a consistent record of what a field looks like over time and gives you more information to work with when it comes time to make those big, mid-season decisions. If you go into the busiest months with a pre-established calendar, you’ll be more likely to stay consistent even when things get busy.

So exactly how often should you fly your fields? This varies depending on your situation, but in general, consider the value of a particular crop and the distance of the field from your headquarters. Strive for flying the most convenient and high-value crops each week, and the less convenient crops biweekly.

Hopefully, we’ve given you a few new ideas to leverage your drone on the farm all year round. However you choose to use your drone this fall and winter, one thing is certain: you’ll return next season a little more prepared, and ready to dive in when it really counts.

Where to Learn More

Buff up your drone skills in time for spring planting, and learn more about using drones in the off season, by watching our agriculture drone clinic series.

If you’re curious about what to expect from drones in the years to come, check out our take on the evolution of UAV technology on the farm and in the field.

The DroneDeploy App Market is full of ag-focused tools to help you analyze your drone data and operate your farm more efficiently.

Download our eBook to learn the basics about NDVI and VARI plant health formulas and become more familiar with your options for putting drones to work in the field during the growing season.

Get Started with DroneDeploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.

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