A Picture Worth a Thousand Data Points

Or a few million, but who’s counting?

There are elements you can probably guess that are needed to make an artificially intelligent spray drone functional – nozzles, fuselage, propellers, a computer, some of our secret special sauce… But one component that may not be the first to come to mind is arguably one of the most important (depending on which team member you ask!) – our cameras. We cannot have computer vision without VISION, a picture worth a thousand data points.

The technical aspects of identifying weeds from crops isn’t quite a walk in the field. Our future farms will rely on a product that doesn’t just work on a beautiful sunny day in a perfectly flat field, but can outperform any other sprayer on the market, and distinguish weeds at a plant pixel level in any climate. Geospatial Imaging Specialist, Joe Lovick, has given us the run down on what it means to develop imaging systems capable of precision spraying from the air.

Why all the work?

Simply put, if the images are poor, the A.I. performs poorly. Have you ever tried to take a photo of your family on a bright day, but they’re standing under the shadow of a tree? Your hand shook right as you pressed the shutter? Maybe the camera didn’t quite autofocus, or someone blinks. In the field, taking the time to reshoot is not an option. Our cameras must be able to stay focused, distinguish shadow from plant, crop from weed. “My job makes the artificial intelligence task easier,” Joe explains. “When the A.I. team get less blurry images of higher quality, it’s much easier for them to do what they do.”

We’ll start with pristine conditions.

Joe was stationed at the Maricopa Agricultural Center until recently. “Maricopa gives us the ability to keep the crop growing year-round, and we can re-seed at regular intervals, so we always have plants of about the right size,” he explains. Being able to re-seed in regular intervals ensures a consistent plant size of 6-8 inches which is the best for image testing. “Maricopa has also particularly good weather in terms of not often being too rainy or windy, we have a lot of test days, and the light is fairly predictable. There is not much in the way of clouds, and you don’t have to continually stop and start, stop and start.”

Level it up.

You know what they say about Saskatchewan weather. If you don’t like it, just wait 5 minutes. That works in our advantage when we need more rigorous trials. “The popcorn clouds we have in Saskatchewan are great for testing the edges of the system. Suddenly it’s really dark and then it’s really bright, so we can get the computer vision stable in those conditions, which is wonderful. In Maricopa, everything is about stability, working out exactly what’s going on. When we’re in Canada, it’s looking at how quickly the weather changes, the difference the background will make, how various crops are going to look in different lights.”

Now speed it all up.

A modern DSLR can have a continuous shooting rate between 3 and 8 frames per second. Even the best on the market DSLR can only go to 16 frames per second. Our drones are set to fly the field quickly, so we’re bumping that up to 4x the frames per second. Capturing pictures quickly is important, but It’s not just about how frequently you can image. “It’s about how we can optimize the settings to get the best image for our A.I.. I’ll spend a day trying to figure out the optimum settings for just one aspect,” says Joe.

Location, soil, crop, and light all matter to a camera.

Saskatchewan accounts for 46.8% of the arable land in Canada and is some of the most productive land in the world. It is the largest exporter of peas, lentils, durum, wheat, mustard seed, canola, flaxseed and oats globally. Additionally, there are over 30 different soil types in the region. These visual changes in colours and shapes will vastly alter the image outcome and must be accounted for.

“Glacial advanced geology is pushing everything down south and moving things around, and the soils that we get are directly because of that. The soil types within five hours drive of Saskatoon or Regina is amazing. Being able to go to all these different cops and take pictures of them is not something that we can do here in Maricopa, so it’s complementary. We can’t do one without the other and Saskatchewan ends up being probably one of the best places in the world for that.”