Mark Piorecky

Mark Piorecky

Valhalla soars onto agriculture scene

Vernon's Valhalla Environmental Consulting launches UAV to fine-tune agricultural production.

The sky is the limit for Valhalla Environmental Consulting.

The Vernon-based firm is adding to its list of consulting services with the addition of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Valhalla, a joint venture between John (Danger) Davies and Mark Piorecky, purchased the UAV glider to offer orchardists, vintners and other farmers a way of assessing the crop quality.

Weighing less than a pound and with a wingspan of 80 centimetres, the glider houses two cameras. Images from a regular digital camera provide aerial photographs, mainly for mapping and referencing purposes.

A second near-infrared camera is capable of producing NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) images to help determine vegetation health and vigour.

Davies says NDVI images have been used to fine-tune winery operations in larger hubs, and says they will prove particularly useful to the increasingly competitive wine industry in the Okanagan.

“Precision viticulture has been going on in Australia and California for about a decade,” he said.

“It’s just not something that’s being used up here. Even some basic aspects of GIS (geographic information systems) aren’t really being utilized.

“You can show where the healthiest plants are (with NDVI images). Wherever the best plants are, they’re going to produce the best grapes, and you can amalgamate those areas of the best grapes into one wine lot so you can produce the best wine, instead of throwing everything into a giant vat and having an average wine.”

Davies says the UAV can also offer cost-saving measures for agriculturalists.

“In an agricultural application where a farmer has to use lots of water and fertilizer, we can show them where it’s doing best and they won’t need to put fertilizer on those areas.

“We’re looking to make the farming more precise. Instead of just having a blanket treatment across the whole area, you can just go out and do what you need to do, where you need to do it.

“We can look for pests and pathogens that are being expressed through poor plant vigour.”

The UAV, which looks like a mini-stealth bomber, features autonomous flight capabilities, meaning it can fly upon a pre-determined flight path, capture low-altitude images and return to the original takeoff point. All images are high resolution and are available shortly after landing.

“You have control over while it’s up there, but if everything is going smoothly, you don’t need to do anything,” said Davies, who underwent classroom and field training with the manufacturer.

“The only time the propeller kicks in is when it needs to stabilize for a photo, or when it needs to keep the speed up.”

Every time the glider goes up, Valhalla must first seek approval from Transport Canada in the form of a flight operators certificate.

Davies foresees the UAV servicing several forestry applications, including fire guard and safety zone locations; forest health incidences and spatial extent in parks; and density of planted cut blocks.

“Essentially, any use you would go to a Google Earth image for, we should be able to provide you with a much more detailed and up-to-date version,” said Davies.