When you hear the word ‘drone,’ what pops to mind?

A piece of military equipment? A monotonal public speaker? A type of bee that keeps its queen fed? How about ‘a revolutionary landscape contractor tool?’ I recently attended a demonstration by Husqvarna. One of the things they showed us was a video of their prototype drone and a UTV, in a race to deliver replacement trimmer string to a man working out in a remote field.

A split screen showed the elapsed time for both the UTV driver and the unmanned drone. The UTV, bouncing over dirt roads, took five minutes and eleven seconds to bring the string to the crew member; the drone: one minute, four seconds. By the time the UTV brought the string, the crewman was already using the string delivered by drone. One of the most important features of a drone is the time saved.

That was fun to watch. But drones, also called UAVs, for unmanned aerial vehicles, are much more than high-tech go-fers. They’re some of the most exciting things to come along since talking smartphones, with applications across all kind of industries, which is why more and more companies are getting into the game.

Essentially highly maneuverable aerial photography platforms, the professional versions of these devices are just beginning to be discovered by people who install, maintain and irrigate landscapes for a living.

Advertising that really soars

One of the most obvious uses for drone technology is to enhance advertising. Lebo Newman, owner of Signature Landscapes in Reno, Nevada, recently bought one, and has been using it to shoot videos and still shots of completed jobs. He then puts the visuals up on his website, and uses them in his print and TV ads.

“The videos are really neat, kind of like those real estate walk-throughs you see on TV,” said Newman. “We’ve also done other kinds of shoots. One day, we gathered all the guys for a safety meeting, had them do the whole ‘Hi, Mom’ thing for the camera. We posted it to our website and later, used that footage as part of a TV ad.”

Russ Jundt, founder, COO and owner of Conserva Irrigation in Ham Lake, Minnesota, recently used a drone to help Toro make a video about its Evolution controller and SMRT Logic phone app. Once it’s edited and put together, the video will feature a split screen; the left side of the screen will show someone pressing the buttons on the phone app.

The right side will feature drone footage of how the system reacts, what zones turn on and where.

Why a drone-mounted camera, instead of a regular one? Jundt says the overhead view was able to show the layout of the entire quarter-acre lot, and different parts of the irrigation system working as the buttons on the app are depressed.

“It’ll be just like in real life,” he said. “Except, instead of pressing a button inside the garage and then running out to see what happened, a contractor or client can go online and see the actual results.”

One of Jundt’s franchisees, Patrick McCusker, owns and operates Conserva Irrigation of Southeast Pennsylvania in Garnet Valley.

He uses his drones “to shoot videos that help me stand out among my competitors.”

He says that the videos are a great way to get in front of both current and future clients, to show what he does and how he does it, so that they can visualize what the potential might be for their own properties. In addition, he feels that the impact registers much more quickly on people than articles, blog posts or still pictures do.

McCusker also does landscape work through his other operation, Garnet Valley Farms, LLC. “Clients often don’t know that they’re interested in a particular service, such as a tree installation, until they see a video of it being done,” he said. “Then, they’re blown away. It’s much better than taking a picture of a project, because you can shoot it from a bunch of different angles.”

Recently, he used his drone to fly across a property where he was installing an irrigation system. “I was thinking, ‘How do you take an effective picture of an irrigation system?

One that gives someone a concept of everything that goes into it?’” “I decided to film the whole process, including all the trenching, and the pipes being laid down into the trenches. Now a potential client can look at that video and say, ‘Oh, that’s what’ll happen when it’s installed on my property—I understand now just what I’ll be paying for.’” He has no regrets about spending $1,000 on a drone, because he sees more than $1,000 of value resulting from it. “When I see the page views on my website of my jobs going from 200 to 2,000, I know that people outside of my typical client base are looking at them. It’s put me in front of new people, and that’s a win-win. To me, it’s powerful advertising.”

The ultimate multi-taskers

Matt Hayes is mapping product supervisor at RDO Integrated Controls in Billings, Montana. Before coming to RDO, Hayes owned an aerial survey imaging company, working with both manned aircraft and UAVs in the “very high-end mountain resort town” of Sun Valley, Idaho. There, he saw firsthand how valuable a tool a drone can be for a landscape contractor.

“That community has lots of large second-home properties, managed by some of the big landscape maintenance companies. A lot of these outfits had already invested in geographic information system (GIS) mapping programs and they became our best customers.”

These companies used his drones to do pre-bid analyses on properties for which they were trying to get maintenance contracts. The UAV gave them much faster and more accurate tree counts and measures of square footages than they could have gotten from ‘walking the site.’ They were easily able to assess what services would be needed, and how many personnel would have to be assigned. This made them much less likely to submit bids that would be too low for all the work involved.

Eric Arneson, ASLA, a landscape designer at Antonia Bava Landscape Architects in San Francisco, California, finds UAVs very exciting. “They give you real-time views of sites from new perspectives,” he said.

“Photography is the most obvious use for a drone, of course,” he said. “But we also use it for analysis, and before-and-after renderings. It’s very helpful that the photos you get are very high quality and high resolution. That allows us to overlay 3-D models, and create renderings with real context. It creates a very nice effect.”

Arneson says drones and mapping software have changed the way his company does site surveys. They used to have to hire an engineer or professional land surveyor to create base maps. This isn’t cheap; for a large property it can cost as much as $10,000.

Now, especially for residential sites, the firm’s designers can usually create their own surveys, saving them—and their clients—a lot of money.

To process the data, the company uses a program called DroneDeploy. “It allows you to create a site survey of any property,” said Arneson. “It draws a really accurate topographical map that we can then use to design a landscape.”

“With the mobile app open, we can easily locate trees, so that we can measure their diameters at breast height. We plug in the data, and when we get back to the office, it’s there in the Cloud. Much better than the way we used to map trees, by holding up large sheets of paper and marking everything by hand.”

Todd Bunnell, Ph.D., is director of agronomy for BrightView’s (the new name for the merged ValleyCrest and Brickman companies) golf course maintenance division. A drone purchase is on the ‘pending’ list.

“As a multi-course maintenance operator, there are definitely some advantages that we see for using drone technology,” said Bunnell. “Not only for identification of potential turf problems, but also for being able to help us evaluate properties without having to hop on an airplane.”

Turf can be stressed by getting too little or too much water, by weed or pest infestation, disease, or a combination of these factors. The trick is to identify stressed plant material before any visible indicators appear. This can be done with a technique that the ag world has been using for some time, deploying drones equipped with near-infrared cameras.

Plant material reflects different wavelengths of light, depending on how much chlorophyll is present in it. The technical term for this is Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI.

Stressed plants, including blades of turfgrass, have lower levels of chlorophyll, resulting in lower NDVI readings. Near-infrared cameras are sensitive enough to pick up these signs of struggle early in the process, before our eyes can detect it.

That’s important, because timing is crucial. Golf course or large-campus landscape maintenance supervisors can’t wait until green areas turn brown before doing something. “In turfgrass situations, if something is starting to go wrong, things can go downhill very rapidly,” said Bunnell.

“But if we can identify stress in grass twelve to 24 hours before humans normally see it, then we can be more proactive, instead of reactive. If it’s not getting enough water, we can apply some type of product, such as a wetting agent, that helps the soil absorb water more readily. Whatever the issue is, we can address it quickly, before the problem progresses.”

You could see how this would save money and materials. Instead of spraying an entire lawn with a chemical, a maintenance crew could use a more ‘prescription-based’ approach, applying it only where needed.

Bunnell thinks that near-infrared cameras might eventually be used to identify various species of weeds based on the different wavelengths they reflect, so that the right herbicides, in just the right amounts, can be applied. Eventually, these cameras might even detect exactly where grubs are present in a lawn, so an insecticide can be targeted just to those spots.

“The key to success in using drones will be in having them collect data, being able to upload that information and get it analyzed, and then, put back into the hands of the decision maker in a timely manner.”

Arneson’s firm used to hire aerial photographers to document their work. “I was talking to the principal of our company the other day, and she’d just been solicited by one of these guys,” said Arneson. “One photo was going to cost $3,000. She said, ‘No, thanks,’ because now we can shoot as many as we want, in as many angles as we want—including video, for free.”

Getting started

Of course, it’s not really ‘free.’ First you have buy, or rent, a drone. Happily, prices have been doing a steady, steep descent over the last couple of years. You can pick up a good professional drone, with camera attached, for around $1,000 to $2,000. You probably already own a smartphone; that’s your control device.

Then, you’ll need a pilot. There are companies that will let you rent both a drone and someone to fly it, as well as places that can teach you or your employees how to be pilots. It doesn’t take very long to learn, and it’s a blast. After all, people fly these as a hobby. If pictures are mainly what you need, you’re set.

But as we said, drones are capable of so much more.

You can get a complicated survey and analysis of a site’s topography—the sort of thing Hayes was talking about.

For that, you’ll need a GIS mapping program to interpret the data. Fortunately, a lot of companies that rent drones and pilots also have that software, and can crunch the numbers for you.

One tip: although drone piloting isn’t hard to learn, you still might want to practice with a cheaper model, say, a $100 toy version. Newman bought one just for training purposes. Why? McCusker says the first time he flew his UAV—a $1,200 model—he crashed it into a tree.

Nothing to be afraid of

McCusker has been a landscape contractor for ten years, but at 31, he’s one of the younger crowd, who are less intimidated by technology. He doesn’t think that age should be a barrier, however, or an excuse. He says that he knows older contractors who are open to trying new things, as well as some younger guys who are closed-minded.

“You have to keep educating yourself about new technology, or you’re not furthering your business. Some of this stuff is really going to change the way we do things,” said Mc- Cusker.

Newman is already envisioning those changes. He’s planning to use his drone to check out irrigation systems, and to give him a ‘heads up’ on stressed-out turf areas. He sees a lot of potential for assessing very large areas, saving himself and his employees from ‘hikable’ situations.

“A good use for a drone would be in checking the drainage ditches that you find all over our hills and mountainsides, behind subdivisions. They have to be cleaned and cleared out periodically, so they don’t overflow and flood someone down below.”

It takes his guys quite a while to check out those long ditches. If they find nothing, that time was wasted. He figures, why not fly the drone over those areas instead, and save tremendous amounts of time, fuel, and labor?

He’s in a good spot for keeping on top of advancing drone technology. Nevada has encouraged UAV and other high-tech developers to locate around the Reno area. “They’re building drones and creating the apps that run them right here, in our backyard, so we’re hoping to tap into that.”

This new technology is potentially game-changing. As McCusker said, “The exciting part is, you just don’t know how some of this stuff is going to affect things.” A drone may look like something out of Area 51, but it may be that one day, it’ll be as commonplace a landscape tool as a lawn mower. Will you be on the cutting edge when it is?