Drones provide high-tech way of measuring bunk silo feed

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Measuring the amount of feed in a bunk silo usually means getting on top of the feed and getting out the old measuring tape, yardstick or other measuring tool.

A new startup in upstate New York is trying to change the game by offering drone flights to measure bunk feed amounts and other data.

Aurox, located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., started test flights in 2017 and made its first commercial flight on a 700-cow dairy in Washington County last year. Today, the company has done drone flights on 100 farms in New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, with 10 farms getting regular flights, according to Adam Durrin, co-founder of Aurox.

He says the drones can give nearly exact measures of bunk feed volume, down to 1-inch accuracy, in a 10-minute flight.

Durrin, who founded a drone company before co-founding Aurox, says the technology was developed after getting in touch with nutritionists. It then evolved into getting precise measurements of bunk feed volume to measure out feed inventories in the future.

The process

The company owns only two drones, Durrin says. Most flights are done using subcontracted pilots.

The drones are equipped with cameras and fly over the bunks taking photos. Using photogrammetry software, the pictures are stitched together to create a kind-of mosaic of the bunk silo area. Using Sketchfab, an online platform that publishes 3D and virtual reality content, a customer can view a computerized model of the silo area with each bunk named.

Aerial view of feed in a bunk siloMEASURING THE BUNKS: Located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aurox has developed a drone-powered way of measuring feed in bunk silos.

“You can get anything related to elevation and volume,” he says. “You can get exposed surface area of the feed, calculate the face. The possibilities are really limitless with this.”

“What’s cool though if you’re looking at the data and you want to reference a physical image, you can go in there and it looks like you’re actually standing there on the bunk,” he says, adding that you can see, to some degree, what the feed looks like remotely.

Go for higher accuracy

Most farms using the service have opted for what Durrin calls the lower-accuracy drone flights.

These flights are done quarterly and provide basic maps and reports on amount of silage and density.

A select number of farms have opted for more frequent flights, the higher-accuracy option, that incorporates GNSS receivers mounted on tripods to get even more accurate measurements of feed volume.

It is “essentially a unit that connects to satellites to give a certain level of accuracy,” he says. “It connects to the drone and the drone essentially acts as a rover. The drone will have a second verification of accuracy.”

This option also uses existing TMR data from the farm to more accurately measure out bunk silo inventories and to forecast shrink trends.

“If you can lose 15% to 20% due to shrink, you're losing a lot of money,” he says. “What this allows is bring the inventory management and tracking to the next level.”

It takes a few days to get reports from the drone flights, he says. The reports include graphs and tables on forage type and total tons that can be paired with online visual data to get an accurate picture of what’s available.

Good for large farms

Durrin says the technology has been used mostly on large farms, 1,000 cows on average, but they’ve also done farms with up to 3,000 cows.

“Really, the value is the greatest on 800-cow dairies or higher. If lower, the value might not be there. Our target market is 1,000-cow dairies and higher,” he says.

The service also provides good value for nutritionists and dairy consultants since they work so closely with farmers on developing TMR rations and must constantly keep track of feed.

“We’ve gotten some positive feedback through them,” he says. “It really boils down to how much feed you have, when you will run out, and saving time to get very good measurements, and improve safety. Those little things can really be a piece of mind to a consultant or a dairy farmer.”

An Aurox drone performs a lower-accuracy flight over feed in a bunk siloACCURACY COUNTS: Most farms using the service have opted for what Durrin calls the lower-accuracy drone flights. These flights are done quarterly and provide basic maps and reports on amount of silage and density.

The company is slowly growing as it has improved its bandwidth capacity, he says. As a result, it has been able to increase its number of flights, especially in the past six months.

The plans are to expand the service to farms in the Midwest and West.

Durrin says the costs of high-precision drones have come down in recent years and that application sensors have improved, too. Flight time has also improved, he says, from an average of 10 to 15 minutes to up to 30 minutes flight time.

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