Worth a Thousand Words

Aerial imaging comes to the groundwater industry.

By William Wagner

This thermal image shows a job where some areas were watered
and others were not. The grower was unaware until this image was
provided, enabling him to not suffer any lost production. Photo
courtesy Don Masten.

Aerial imaging might not be the next big thing in the groundwater game, but it’s still a pretty cool development.

Whether it involves scouting an agricultural field or a well site, aerial imaging has become another tool in the kits of water well contractors and farmers. Among many other uses, it can make vital determinations about water.

“If I had to put a timeframe on it, I’d say it’s probably been about two or three years that I’ve started to see aerial images being put out in our industry,” says Merritt Partridge of Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, whose operation employs a drone. “It is a tool to use to get a perspective on something that otherwise you may not have been able to.”

As with any new wrinkle in an industry, not all types of aerial imaging are created equally. Most companies opt for drones, whereas some do flyovers with airplanes.

“Certainly, the trend is heading to the use of drones due to expense,” says Partridge, who serves on the National Ground Water Association Board of Directors. “You can get a drone into the air a heck of a lot more cheaply than you can an airplane with a crew. It’s also relative to what kind of operation you have. We like to use a drone for small projects here and there. The drone is much more popular. It’s easier to
use and takes excellent-quality pictures that are difficult to get otherwise.”

The Purist

Don Masten kindly differs with Partridge’s assessment of drones vs. airplanes. His day job is with Downey Drilling Inc. in Loomis, Nebraska, but about six years ago he started an aerial-imaging side business called Flying M.

“I looked into the drone thing,” he says. “A drone is only really handy for scouting. So, if you’re on a construction site, you can take a picture, or if you’re a farmer, you can look at one spot.

“But production agriculture is a lot of acres, and a drone is not a good platform for that. It takes too much time to cover acres. We’re actually taking a quarter section (of a field) in one shot, whereas with drones you’re limited. You also can’t attach a top-dollar camera to a drone because it may not come home.”

Enter airplanes. Masten, who has invested about $200,000 in imaging equipment, believes there is no substitute for an aircraft-based approach.

“At the time (he started Flying M), I was working for a farmer’s co-op, and they were looking for things to enhance their business model and benefit their patrons,” he says. “Being a pilot and techie, I kept thinking that if I could just get an infrared camera in the air and point it at the field in real time, I could make a mark at that. The equipment is heavy and sensitive, but I figured I could get it on an airplane with no problem.”

After researching his options, he decided to utilize the services of an Illinois-based company called AirScout. Since then, he’s never looked back, only down upon landscapes with his state-of-the-art equipment.

Says Masten, “We do emitted energy imaging, which is very similar to a thermal image except that it’s much more in-depth. So, if we’re looking at bare dirt in a field, we can tell you where the water is and where it’s not.”

For the farmers Masten serves, this technology literally can be invaluable.

“The starkest example I have is that we had a customer who got a sprinkler package,” he says. “The dealer installed it and got about two-thirds down the pivot on day one with the intention of coming back to finish it. For whatever reason, it didn’t get finished, but (the customer) didn’t see that. When corn started popping in his fields, we took an aerial picture, and we could see a moisture deficiency in the last two and a
half spans. But you couldn’t see it from the ground with your naked eye.

“I contacted the farmer and said, ‘You have an issue here.’ He said, ‘I think you’re wrong. I looked at it, and it seems fine.’

“Well, he came to find out that they never finished those last two and a half spans of the sprinklers. He was getting ready to lose half the crop in his field. But with those emitted energy photos, he was able to fix the problems.”

Flying M also has tied in neatly with Masten’s work at Downey Drilling, to which he contributes his aerial-imaging expertise.

“It adds a little bit of a techie look to the company,” Masten says. “As far as the well business, there are cameras to put down the well, but what we do (on the aerial side) is a little different. We do spot-type image gathering. Like, if you have a region that’s hard to find, I can see if the tile lines are plugged up.”

The Realist

Aerial images or video from a drone can show contractors the tight spaces they will have to work—and work in—from time to time on jobs. Photo courtesy Merritt Partridge.

Partridge, in contrast, doesn’t see a potentially booming market for a big-time aerial-imaging operation like Masten’s. His drone-based scope is much more modest.

“I bought a (DJI Phantom 3) drone (for about $1200) for personal use maybe three years ago,” he says. “The more I used it, the more I realized we could use it at our company. So, I applied it to certain jobsites. We don’t use it a lot, but when we do, it’s handy to have.”

Case in point: a recent site that was difficult to access due to water and mud.

“It was so wet, you couldn’t use a four-wheeler back there,” he says. “But we still wanted to look, so the company sent a drone out to take a video of the entire site. We could get an idea of how difficult it would be to access some of the ground in the well location. It saved us from having to use a mud buggy to get back into the site. We could have done the job without (the drone), but was helpful not to have to.”

What Partridge likes best about drone technology is its ease of use.

“The drones can pretty much fly themselves,” he says. “It’s not like flying a remote control helicopter, where you constantly have to move the controls to manage it. You can preplan coordinates.”

He adds that “the picture quality from drones is incredible.”

Even Masten admits there have been major advancements on that front.

“Drones are getting so much better,” he says. “They’re getting better digital cameras, and there is some baseline thermal-imaging stuff on drones now. It’s pretty good information. It’s not where we’re at, but for spot-checking, it’s awesome.”

So, what’s the end game for aerial imaging? It depends whom you ask.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge step or some monumental moment in our industry,” Partridge says. “A downhole camera was a revolutionary product in the industry. I don’t know that (aerial imaging) quite gets there. I wouldn’t say it’s something I’ve seen more of (recently), but the drones are getting less expensive and more diverse and user-friendly. Five years ago that drone was $2000, but it may be $200 today. It may be an easier decision for someone to say, ‘I want to try that out.’”

Masten goes a step further.

“My business has done real well,” he says. “We were kind of the first in the market (in his area). In the past six years, there’s been probably a half-dozen companies that have come into the business in our area. We’re starting to see guys who are coming around to the fact that emitted energy (imaging) is the way to go.

“Aerial imaging is here to stay. It’s going to become a part of life here in the next 10 to 15 years.”

William Wagner is an award-wining writer, editor, and project manager for Wagner Communications. He has written for magazines, newspapers, books, and websites. He lives in the Chicago area and can be reached at william.wagner7@gmail.com.