How this little-known usage case is driving massive benefits for growth, scalability in this key industry
By Matt Szabaga, CSSGB, Evans Incorporated
Many across the industry are predicting that drone use in agriculture will soon account for a majority of the income produced from commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations. However, its use in the agriculture industry goes largely unnoticed.
So- the important question here then becomes - why?
Well, it may be as simple as the low “wow” factor perception that comes to mind when people think about agri-drone use. While the imagery associated with these scenes has a difficult time competing with live videos on the local news of passengers stuck at the top of a roller coaster, this industry is a real growth area for UAS technology, with burgeoning possibility and opportunity for the growth of the space overall.
Quiet, Yet Expansive Growth
Recent estimates from research by the Center for the Study of the Drone (March, 2016) indicate agri-drones account for approximately 11% of the commercial vehicle registrations in the U.S. The expectation among many sources is for income from this fourth-largest share of the commercial drone population to account for 60-80% of all UAS-derived revenue within the next few years. In other words, the market space is growing as quietly as the vehicles move through our air space.
What are some of the reasons for this growth?
A Right-Sized Tool - With Efficient Management and In-Field Processing
Based on USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture data, we can delineate family-owned farms into four sizes:
- Small: ~231 acres
- Average: ~434 acres
- Large: ~1,421 acres
- Very Large: ~2,086 acres
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[rt_icon_list_line icon_name="icon-angle-double-right"]A single flyover costs between $300-500 covers 100 acres in 15 minutes, capturing about 300 images. This comes to $3-$5 per acre and compares very favorably to the cost for a satellite or manned aircraft flyover, which range between $15 and $20 per acre (and typically require a high minimum number of acres).[/rt_icon_list_line]
[rt_icon_list_line icon_name="icon-angle-double-right"]At the same time, because the drone flies only a few hundred feet above the ground, it will produce better resolution and is less affected by cloud cover. [/rt_icon_list_line]
[rt_icon_list_line icon_name="icon-angle-double-right"]In addition, image processing time is faster from the drones because they are immediately accessible in the field.[/rt_icon_list_line]
Flexibility, Accessibility, and Cost Scalability
Drones offer significant flexibility. Larger family farms may opt for fixed-wing (airplane) configurations that are well-suited for making long, uniform passes over a large area and doing so very quickly. Rotary wing (helicopter) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which account for more than 70% of all vehicles in use today, provide the best resolution because of their, generally, slower speeds, and are better at scanning oddly shaped properties and capturing greater detail. Fixed wing UAVs will typically cover ten times as much ground as a rotary wing in the same amount of time.
The benefits this offers as an enabler of scalable growth opportunity are numerous, including:
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[rt_icon_list_line icon_name="icon-angle-double-right"]While the larger farms may find economies of scale to bring these costs more in line, small and average size farms will benefit greatly from the lower cost of a UAS solution.[/rt_icon_list_line]
[rt_icon_list_line icon_name="icon-angle-double-right"]Larger farms can realistically consider purchasing and operating a UAS on their own or in a small collective, an option simply not feasible with manned aircraft or satellites.[/rt_icon_list_line]
Capabilities Meeting Real Needs
Farmers can gain real benefits from agri-drones due to the varied array of sensors they carry and the information these sensors provide. For example:
Aerial mapping and imaging
Photogrammetry and 3D reconstruction
Surveying and land use applications
Surveying fences and buildings
Identify crop damage from farm equipment
Heat signature detection
Water temperature detection
Water source identification
Wet vs. dry soil
Multispectral and Hyperspectral
Plant health measurement
Soil fertility and nutrient deficiencies or excesses
Presence of invasive species, blights, or plant diseases
3D digital surface modeling
Plant height measurement
Elevation changes and drainage issues
The multispectral/hyperspectral scanning is proving to be the most useful. Farmers can use the imagery from these scans to identify areas of their farm that need more water or less nitrogen, or where a disease may be present. For example, Walnut Blight has a specific light wavelength signature and walnut farmers can scan for it to identify a problem while it’s still manageable.
Challenges and Opportunities for Future Growth
So, what potentially impedes the adoption of drones in agriculture? First, there are the barriers to widespread drone adoption common to all industries: safety of drone operations, privacy issues, and insurance questions. FAA regulations controlling access to licenses and dictating training, expertise, and experience requirements will help to alleviate each of these concerns, though they will never go away completely. Manufacturers and designers will continue to improve drones so they require minimal training and are highly autonomous.
The biggest obstacles to wider adoption specifically in the agricultural market space are identifying the type and quality of data that need to be captured and making it happen. To address this, the industry will continue to push for more sophisticated sensors and cameras.
So, What’s Next?
In the future, autonomous fleets of networked drones may tackle agricultural monitoring tasks collectively. These fleets may operate like an ant colony or bee hive, with specific roles assigned to certain drones. For example, some drones may take multispectral scans of assigned portions of a field, relay the resulting data to a centralized computer, which then directs other devices to send water or fertilizer to those areas that are in deficit. Other drones, carrying small quantities of pesticides may be dispatched to other areas where a wavelength signature for a particularly nasty caterpillar has turned up. Still others will ensure fences remain in good repair and notify the farmer or rancher when and where a problem arises.
Several startups already have created drone-planting systems that decrease planting costs by a remarkable 85 percent. These systems shoot seed pods containing nutrients into the soil.
In other words, the sky’s the limit.
For more information about Evans, Incorporated’s work in UAS and across the Aviation industry, please visit http://propeluas.com/who-we-work-with/aviation-industry/.