Drones as Tools – Mitch and Zach Fiene, DMZ Aerial
“Technology doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated,” said Mitch Fiene. “It should make you more efficient at what you do.”
During their presentation at the Vita Plus Custom Harvester Meeting, Mitch shared some of the tools he and his cousin, Zach Fiene, are developing at their company, DMZ Aerial.
Mitch’s father is an agronomist and, when he started his career, he could scout about 40 acres in a day. As a kid, Mitch would join his dad in the fields. When he started using a small-scale drone for scouting, he increased that number to between 1,000 to 4,000 acres per day.
According to the Fienes, 600,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones, are in use in the U.S. today. Although not every farmer is flying a drone, many have adopted digital technology to manage their operations. Seventy percent of farmers have cell phones and 50 percent have tablets.
“We are living in an era of imagery,” Zach explained, and being able to share crop photos quickly offers enhanced efficiency and better communication with the farmer.
However, drones do have their limitations. They can take photos of leaf tissues to show the severity of a disease. Wide shots of fields can be used to help predict yield loss based on field conditions and average yield estimates. However, drone and satellite imagery cannot be used to diagnose specific problems across a field.
At least not yet. But the Fienes are working on that.
The concept is relatively simple, but the process is not. The Fienes are developing a program that uses convolutional neural networks (CNN). Simply put, CNN makes a computer function like a brain. They have been developing a database of thousands of images to make a computer recognize a multitude of specific crop issues.
Think of it like an agronomist’s training program. Starting out, a young agronomist may have a hard time distinguishing between two similar plant diseases. However, as he or she gains experience, the agronomist is able to notice subtle differences and accurately diagnose the disease. The same is true for the computer. The more images it sees, the more accurate it becomes.
The Fienes said the goal for their product, called DiAGnosis, is to develop a smart phone app that will allow the farmer to scan a plant or take a photo and immediately diagnose the disease. They want the app to function without a data connection since cell phone reception isn’t guaranteed in the countryside.
“We have created an agronomist that fits in your pocket,” Mitch said.
They believe farmers will be able to use the tool as a “double-check.” When they suspect a nutrient deficiency, disease, weed or insect issue in a plant, they can use the app to quickly confirm the problem and move toward a solution faster.
Their product isn’t ready yet, but the Fienes are optimistic it won’t take too long before it becomes a reality. They are working feverishly to collect images and data to help the computer learn to be an agronomist.
Mitch grew up seeing his dad’s commitment to helping farmers efficiently grow good crops. In the digital age, he and Zach are taking that service to new frontiers.
Technology and data management