Province turning to drones for more precise surveys of P.E.I. fields

The P.E.I. Department of Agriculture has started using a drone to create aerial maps of Island fields.

Voluntary program allows department to capture contours of the land, and eventually use thermal imaging

The Department of Agriculture is using drones to survey land on the Island. (P.E.I. Department of Agriculture)

The P.E.I. Department of Agriculture has started using a drone to create aerial maps of Island fields.

It's much faster than the old way of surveying from the ground and the results are more precise than previous aerial surveys by plane because the 3D imaging captures land elevation.

The drone is less expensive to maintain and it doesn't disturb the ground. 

It's currently being used on a by-request basis for farmers involved in soil conservation programs.

Evan MacDonald, a soil and water conservation specialist for the department, said the drone helps capture nuances that they couldn't before.

Using a drone to survey land is more precise and faster than surveying from the ground or using planes, says Evan MacDonald, a soil and water conservation specialist for the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

"Now instead of getting a series of points like we were getting before, and we create contours from that, now we're getting that image," MacDonald said. "So the image, really, a picture tells a thousand words kind of thing, so we can tell a lot from the picture itself."

The drone surveys began last spring. So far, the province has mapped out about 2,400 hectares of land.

"In fields that there may be potentially erosion problems, we'll go in and survey the field, and then use that data, the photos, we'll stitch them all into a map and create a 3D model of the ground so we have accurate elevations," said MacDonald. "Then we'll devise a plan on making up some soil conservation structures."

The province's standing committee on agriculture was briefed on the project Friday.

Green party leader Peter Bevan-Baker hopes to see the drones used to target problem areas to prevent future fish kills.

The drone is being used on a by-request basis by farmers involved in a soil conservation program. (P.E.I. Department of Agriculture)

"A lot of people are aware that there are hot spots on the island, or places that are more vulnerable than others," he said. 

"So if we can identify them, let's make them the priority, let's fix them first. And that might mean taking a part of a field out of production, it might mean extending the buffer zone there, it might mean you can't grow a row crop in that field."

For now, the government said the surveys will continue on a voluntary basis. But it said watershed groups have been given access to data they can use to work with farmers to address areas at risk.

The Department of Agriculture will purchase a second drone this year so it can conduct even more surveys.

The next one will come with a thermal camera that will be able to take images that show plant health, soil moisture levels, even a picture showing how much heat is escaping from the roof of a public building like a school, which the government said could be used to make the building more energy efficient.