When asked what technology will be the best source of crop imagery in the future, industry experts say the answer could be “all of the above.”

“A weekly satellite image will point out questionable areas of a field that require more checking,” says Lanny Faleide, president of Agri ImaGIS Technologies, which operates the Satshot remote sensing and imagery service. “The UAV can be configured to take a closer look at those areas at very high resolution. Now I can see the specks on the leaves or the insects that the satellite image hinted at.”

“With imagery from a satellite, plus a UAV or a ground rig, you will be able to pick the resolution you need and the time you need it,” says Mike Martinez, Trimble marketing manager for Connected Farm. “These systems will be synergistic.”

Satellites have the advantage of covering broad areas quickly at resolutions that capture general performance differences across a field. UAVs and manned airplanes offer a closer view of crop conditions, but cover a more limited number of acres in a day, notes Martinez.

Trimble’s new fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS), the UX5, will be able to cover more than 500 acres in a 50-minute flight at a 2-inch resolution, which is recommended for infrared images that generate a high-resolution Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) crop vigor map. At a 1-inch resolution needed for early crop stand counts or capturing elevations used in drainage system planning, the UAS would cover nearly 200 acres in the same time frame.

There also can be synergies between imagery from satellites and UAVs and ground-based sensor systems like Trimble’s GreenSeeker and Ag Leader’s OptRx systems. But in many cases farmers who invest in ground rigs won’t have a need for aerial images to drive variable-rate nitrogen applications, says Chad Fick, Ag Leader product specialist.

“Each of these technologies has their advantages and disadvantages, but with a ground-based system like OptRx, you buy it once and your cost is fixed compared to buying images every year,” says Fick. “And we don’t have to worry about cloud cover like all the aerial systems do.”