ArduPilot at Work

We see a lot of test flight videos. Maybe some demo flights. But not too many where ArduPilot is being flown at work for commercial purposes. So I tried to capture some moments of a real-world crop scouting flight, with an ArduPilot-flown Trex 600EP flybar helicopter.

It’s kind of hard to actually film the aircraft because the flight track is 1.2 miles end to end, so we can only get some shots of it making a turn at the end of a pass, and the grand finale when it comes in at the completion of the flight. So this is basically what it looks like from the ground station, flying the helicopter. I have some extra “enhancements” that the ArduPilot ground station does not provide, like long-range FPV and telemetry to the RC radio for critical operating parameters of the helicopter, with alarms that go off if headspeed drops below 1,650rpm, ESC temp exceeds 130F, servo power rail voltage drops below 5.0V, etc…

For crop scouting work, this is a low altitude flight flown at 75 feet above terrain at 22 mph ground speed. Capturing RGB imagery with a solid-mounted GoPro camera with a 122.6 x 94.4 deg FOV.


Nice video Chris,

I think this kind of application is what many of us already do or aspire to do…

Would you care to share what do you do with the video/photo material you take during these flights?

I assume you analyze it offline when back@office?


This type of imagery (RGB) is used by crop insurance companies to evaluate the condition of the crop after emergence. If there is a claim due to a weather related event such as drought, hail, wind, excessive rain, etc. the early season imagery is compared to the imagery taken from another flight for the adjuster to determine how much damage there is. So the raw RGB imagery is supplied to the farmer and his/her crop insurance company. There is no processing of the imagery required. They want the raw shots, untouched, of every square foot of the crop. At 22 mph the helicopter is traveling at 32 feet/second so an image is shot every 160 feet with the camera snapping an image every 5 seconds.

Later in the season, high altitude flights will be flown with a NIR camera for NVDI processing, and that imagery is processed by a professional company we hire in Minneapolis. It is used for crop stress analysis and potential yield evaluation. That imagery is shot with my much more powerful piston helicopters from 167 feet over terrain, flying at 50 mph ground speed and covering 1,000 acres/hr.

I fly roughly 60,000 acres of RGB and 135,000 acres of NIR on corn and soybeans every season at a cost of $1/acre, per flight. For the first three years doing ag work with unmanned aircraft, I tried a couple different fixed-wings, and several multi designs. They simply do not have the power to handle the wind and flight conditions in the wide open spaces, nor do they fly long enough. I’ve more than quadrupled the acres I can do in a season since going to helicopters. This is my second year flying ArduPilot helicopters, first year trying an electric.

I am not flying Part 107. I am a commercial pilot with over 30 years experience flying aerial application (“crop dusting”) aircraft, and stuck with my Section 333, which gives me a lot more leeway for flying ag vs Part 107. Part 107 was designed with industry pressure from news and filming outfits, multi-rotor manufacturers, and everybody with a “drone” wanting to be an aerial photographer, to “do something” to make licensing of UAV pilots easier. Part 107 is way too limited for the type of work I do where I am flying 1 - 2 mile passes on crops.