Yesterday senseFly launched its latest fixed-wing drone (or UAV/UAS) platform for agriculture, called the eBee SQ. So what’s new about this system and what makes senseFly think it is a good fit for the professional ag market? Waypoint caught up with the team behind the drone to learn more.
Let’s start with the basics: why did senseFly develop the eBee SQ?
Matteo Triacca (Ag Product Manager): We’ve had great success with our eBee Ag drone, which the eBee SQ replaces. Customers love its simple, safe operation, the automation it offers, its durability and its full drone to tractor workflow. The eBee SQ still includes all of this, but during the eBee Ag’s time on the market, at the same time, we’ve been working increasingly closely with clients around the world, collecting their feedback on what they wanted to see in a next-generation farming UAV. So for the last year, we’ve been focused on making this happen.
In addition, the efforts of Parrot [senseFly’s parent company] in developing the Sequoia multispectral camera have been pivotal in bringing the eBee SQ to the market, in that we very much designed the eBee SQ as the professional drone for Sequoia. The way we like to define it internally is that Sequoia now has “its own house”.
The way we like to define it internally is that Sequoia now has “its own house”
Nathan Stein (Ag Solutions Manager): Of course, Parrot’s Sequoia is designed to fit virtually every drone, it is not purely senseFly-specific, but I see this as a positive in that its wide use will help to drive the sensor’s adoption and introduce more ag professionals to the insights they can achieve with a multispectral camera. However, many of these users will start out using rotary, multicopter systems and these are obviously limited in terms of how many acres they can cover per flight. Fixed-wings give you much more range, so it was an obvious play to develop a new fixed-wing senseFly system around this camera: combining the Sequoia’s data breadth with our platform’s larger coverage. It’s not only a great professional tool out of the box, but also a clear upgrade path for quadcopter operators who are looking to make better decisions and work more efficiently.
Martin Scheiber (Ag Application Manager): Exactly. And this leap in flight coverage brings into play even larger scale operations where staff might be in charge of, or contracted to analyse, thousands of acres at a time.
How, specifically, is the eBee SQ different to senseFly’s existing eBee Ag?
Triacca: Well it is a slightly larger airframe—although it still only weighs 1.1 kilograms [2.4 lb]—and above all it flies longer, up to 55 minutes. That’s with the Sequoia on-board. That is basically double the flight time of our previous eBee Ag when flying with Sequoia onboard. In our testing that’s comparing very well with today’s small quadcopters, which some clients use as their entry point into the drone world. We’ve tested all kinds of these systems, and we’re recording up to ten times the acreage in a single flight.
Scheiber: For example, you can cover 500 acres [200 hectares] flying at 400 feet [122 metres] above ground level. That’s in one flight, staffed by one operator using only visual line-of-sight. That’s a very real boost efficiency-wise.
You can cover 500 acres [200 hectares] flying at 400 feet [122 metres] above ground level. That’s in one flight, staffed by one operator using only visual line-of-sight.
Stein: The camera is obviously a key differentiator too. You’re getting the deeper data insights of multispectral, but also at a lower price than the eBee Ag’s previous multispectral option. The RGB on board is also a great add on that makes it really a unique offer.
What’s special about the Sequoia and multispectral data? Why is this better than using an NIR camera say?
Triacca: The Sequoia is unique. It’s a small, superlight sensor that captures data over four bands—green, red, near-infrared and red-edge, plus it captures RGB data alongside your multispectral results, meaning you can also see how your fields look ‘in real life’.
With a multispectral sensor, you can achieve higher data accuracy than you can using a modified NIR sensor. You’re also much better able to compare datasets from different flights flown under different light conditions. And of course, with the Sequoia you get that multispectral data alongside the RGB without needing to fly two separate flights.
Stein: What’s also exciting is that there’s an increasingly large body of scientific evidence that supports the agricultural use of UAVs with multispectral sensors.
There was the recent paper by a team from FHNW in Switzerland for example, in which they prove how their drone-sourced multispec results “consistently matched” their ground-based field spectrometer measurements. They had a mean deviation in NDVI values of just 0.01-0.04! They also found high levels of correlation between difference vegetation indices and reference yield measurements for rape and barley, such as NDRE with 87%, and successfully detected early stage potato blight. For me, those kind of results are definitely evidence that multispectral imagery collected by drone technology might become, should become, the norm.
Triacca: Yes, then in terms of proving the commercial benefits you have our French partner AIRINOV’s new case study. Since 2015, their customer—a large coop called OCEALIA Groupe—has flown eBee Ag UAVs, carrying AIRINOV’s own multiSPEC 4C sensor, over the fields of more than 300 members. Thanks to that multispectral data and AIRINOV’s expert analysis, OCEALIA recorded an average yield increase of 10% across those farmers’ parcels [approx. 7,200 ha / 18,000 ac], compared to their traditionally analysed parcels.
OCEALIA recorded an average yield increase of 10% across those farmers’ parcels
Aside from precise data and large coverage, the eBee SQ also comes with brand new ground station software. Could you tell us more about that — what’s special there?
Triacca: Our goal has always been to create a fully comprehensive drone solution that fits neatly into the ag ecosystem, a solution that spans both hardware—the drone—and its accompanying software.
On the pre-flight, planning and control side, with eBee SQ this means we’re talking about eMotion Ag. This is a brand new, farming-optimised version of our eMotion ground station software, which is supplied with every eBee SQ. It’s the features in this program that we think move us several steps ahead of the competition in terms of boosting an operator’s efficiency and better slotting drone operations neatly into a client’s existing ag workflow.
Stein: For example, in eMotion Ag you have built-in presets to help you deploy quickly. You also have multi-field uploads, which help you squeeze the most efficiency out of the drone’s longer flight time by covering several fields in the same flight—without needing to land and re-plan your flights each time.
Crucially, eMotion Ag can accept shapefiles imported directly from your Farm Management Information System
And crucially, eMotion Ag can accept shapefiles imported directly from your Farm Management Information System, as well as KML files. The benefit of this is that you don’t need to define your field boundaries—your mission areas—every time yourself in eMotion Ag (although you can do that if required of course). Instead, you can simply pipe these existing field boundaries directly in from your FMIS, like Ag Leader’s SMS or Trimble’s Farm Works. That was a key desire from our customer base, and it was a missing link in terms of fitting the drone more smoothly into today’s modern ag workflow, which we’re really excited to have brought to life.
You talked about offering a full ag solution, so what about post-flight? What software and processing options are available with the eBee SQ?
Triacca: Sure, that’s a good question. The drone part of the ag workflow isn’t just about capturing the multispectral imagery, it’s about processing those shots effectively, creating accurate index maps for analysis, and ideally also having the tools in the same program to transform these maps into exportable prescriptions that you can load straight into your FMIS or tractor monitor.
In the first instance, eMotion Ag’s built-in Flight Data Manager handles the image import into your PC, automatically geo-tagging those shots on the way in. Then for the rest, Pix4Dmapper Ag (Desktop & Cloud) is our recommended option for the eBee SQ. Customers can purchase that right alongside the drone.
Scheiber: For operators interested in a cloud-only solution, the eBee SQ’s Sequoia imagery can also be processed with MicaSense’s ATLAS platform.
Stein: The extra offer we’ve pulled together for eBee SQ buyers is that from now to the end of the year  every eBee SQ will be supplied with a complimentary three-month licence of MicaSense ATLAS, plus a complimentary one-month licence of Pix4Dmapper Ag (Desktop & Cloud) and USD $200 of free AIRINOV maps. We’re pumped about all those options being available right out of the box and this also shows how strong Parrot’s agriculture offer is now [senseFly is the commercial drone subsidiary of Parrot Group and Parrot Group is also the parent company of the other companies mentioned above].
How was AIRINOV involved in the eBee SQ’s development?
Stein: We developed eMotion Ag with input from the team at AIRINOV. Their agronomists’ knowledge is as good as it gets, since they’ve experience of having worked directly with over 5,000 farmers, across France and beyond.
Who would you say is the eBee SQ aimed at, in terms of its target users? Are we realistically talking about the major ag players, the multinationals?
Triacca: Not at all. It’s a valuable tool for anyone in ag who might benefit from using multispectral data to assess the growth of their, or their clients’, crops. This could be the UAV division of an agrochemical company, but equally it might be a small agronomy firm or crop consultancy, a coop, a university or research institute, even technically inclined growers themselves.
Stein: At the end of the day, the operator of an ag drone is first and foremost an ag professional—typically an agronomist, scientist or grower—who is looking to deepen their knowledge about the crop they care for. To this end, the eBee SQ is a tool, just like an X-ray. X-rays take some expertise to read; they may be easy to ‘see’ in terms of what’s black and what’s white, but they need a keen, expert eye to properly understand the details. In this sense, our professional customers—and partners like AIRINOV—are undoubtedly ‘plant doctors’; they will read that X-ray—the drone’s data—interpret the results and, if required, order more tests based on the issues they identify. Then, through further analysis, the patient—“the field”—can be treated and its health improved.
Obviously professional buyers want a durable solution that’s going to provide strong ROI. Is it too early to have statistics on the platform’s reliability?
Stein: This week we’ve launched the product and we’ll begin shipping it in the coming weeks. However the key is that it’s first and foremost a senseFly eBee, which means you’re getting a drone that’s based on a safe and globally proven platform—a system that has been flown successfully hundreds of thousands of times around the world.
Scheiber: I think our current recorded stats are around 309,000 customer flights to date. That’s almost four million kilometres flown.
Stein: Frankly, the fact that each drone includes full local support via our global dealer network, and a customer portal with full knowledge base, webinars, tutorials and so on is also a big plus. This kind of professional level help shows we’re dedicated to helping our customers reap the most benefit from their technology, not just selling them a solution and moving on.
For customers looking for even more peace of mind, we recently added a range of extended warranty packs
Triacca: Plus, for customers looking for even more peace of mind, we recently added a range of extended warranty packs, which give you extra security for up to three years after buying your drone. And for US customers, the eBee SQ (like our other drones) is also available with financing.
Lastly, how affordable is this system? What kind of price point are we talking about?
Triacca: The recommended retail price for the eBee SQ, including the Sequoia camera, is 10,990 US dollars. We think that represents excellent value considering the data depth and coverage you can achieve. Plus, as Nathan mentioned, for customers who buy during 2016 these clients will also get complimentary licences of MicaSense ATLAS, Pix4Dmapper Ag and free AIRINOV maps.
Thanks for your time folks!
All: You’re welcome.