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Drone technology valuable new tool for land surveying in P.E.I.

Evan MacDonald, left, soil and water conservation specialist, and Barry Thompson, manager of sustainable agriculture, leave the Coles Building Friday after giving a briefing on drone technology to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries.
Evan MacDonald, left, soil and water conservation specialist, and Barry Thompson, manager of sustainable agriculture, leave the Coles Building Friday after giving a briefing on drone technology to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries. - Jim Day

Evan MacDonald says the value of drone technology to survey P.E.I. farmland is exceeding his expectation.

MacDonald was hired in the fall of 2016 as a soil and water conservation specialist with the province’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

He had background in the use of drones and believed they held considerable potential for surveying.

“We worked with the department and we were lucky enough to get funds in place to purchase a drone that spring and got on the ground running, and looking back it was a great decision,’’ says MacDonald.

“It’s really helped us a lot.’’

Surveying is done primarily for soil conservation projects at the request of a farmer.

In 2017, the drone was used to survey more than 6,000 acres on roughly 60 fields, mostly for topographic mapping.

MacDonald says the drone images allow for more accurate placement of soil conservation features in a field.

“So to get an idea of the lay of the land on the farmers’ fields: where are the low areas; where are the hedgerows; where are the crop lines and things like that, so we can plan our design based on those features,’’ he says.

“So when we go ahead and build a terrace or a berm in a field, (engineers) have that background information as a base.’’

MacDonald says the department plans to purchase a second drone, one with more advanced camera capabilities, which can be used for crop health assessment as well as getting measurements of soil quality, heat loss and soil moisture.

“What it does is, it gives us better information, allows us to survey faster, and that frees up time to do other things, to spend more time on our plans, survey more parts of P.E.I. The value to the farmer is that hopefully that our designs are more accurate and we’re not missing things which we could have potentially been missing in the past.’’
-Evan MacDonald

MacDonald says other types of gear, such as ATVs, are still used for surveying farmland but to a lesser extent thanks to the drone.

“What it does is, it gives us better information, allows us to survey faster, and that frees up time to do other things, to spend more time on our plans, survey more parts of P.E.I.,’’ he says.

“The value to the farmer is that hopefully that our designs are more accurate and we’re not missing things which we could have potentially been missing in the past.’’

Barry Thompson, manager of sustainable agriculture with the department, says other departments also have a use for the drone.

The education department, he notes, can use the drone to measure heat loss from school buildings while the highway department can use the technology to do some mapping on projects, among other applications.

The potential of drones is largely untapped, he adds.

“We don’t even know the limit of it yet,’’ he says.

“Its (application is) just going to continue to grow.’’

Thompson and MacDonald gave a briefing on the drone technology Friday to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries.

Paula Biggar, minister of transportation, infrastructure and energy, says she welcomes the technology.

Green party MLA Hannah Bell told fellow standing committee members she finds “exciting’’ the willingness of the agriculture department to share the drone technology with other departments.

Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, though, voiced caution in noting technology alone will not ensure sound conservation practices.

Newly appointed Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Robert Henderson says new modern tools like drones can help the province further address environmental sustainability and protection.

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