Business Opportunites for Drones in Agriculture

I was just at a conference in Los Angeles and the secession speakers seemed to be in agreement there was not a outside business opportunity for drone use In agriculture.  They invision the farmer having everything in the back of their truck to do their own surveys and make corrections quickly as needed.  Or the biologist or horticulturist will fly the drone and make the interpretation of the information as needed.

I disagree but that is not worth much, do you see drone operators getting involved in helping farmers?  Maybe what do you see them doing.

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  • The big problem is try to answer: "What is the economic benefit?". If we are capable to answer this question with a number perhaps we could have a business opportunity. Only Airinov (Sensefly) try to answer this question, but only for two culture and that is not enough for all the Ag market. Another example to try this question you can find here

  • I believe drones in precision agriculture have their potential but right now we are at an early stage and there needs to be a proper research done before one can say it's true benefits. There are indications that with instant and cheap drone mapping a farmer can save on inputs but without a proper research you can hardly say if the ROI is positive or negative. And also it all depends on many other factors such as : plant type/value, field geography/size, climate, farmer's attitude towards drones, used drone technology, in-field problem you are looking for an answer etc.

    So in general I cannot say right now if drones are broadly speaking a 100% positive thing for farmers because as you can see there are many variables involved. I'd say in 2-3 years time there is going to be much more use-cases and hopefully success stories to tell than now. This technology is evolving so fast, one can never be sure what comes out next.

    In any case a general rule of thumb, an almighty NDVI seems to be rather overvalued index to solve all possible problems a farmer is looking for. You cannot solve everything with a single multispectral camera. So if you are looking for a water stress use thermal camera. If you are looking for a specific weed/disease/plant phenotype/signature or want to count your plants than use hyperspectral camera. There are far too many applications to list them here, even more vegetation indexes being already developed in a research all around the world and still new are coming. So it all depends on what problem isolation you are looking for, then you need to select appropriate sensor/camera/drone then the results validation in-field has to be done then a farmer has to take action on treatment/solution and only then you might be able to say if you have a good ROI.

    Regarding the drone crop dusting application for the next 2-5 years, I see this efficient either for very small fields or a swarm application for bigger fields with fully autonomous operation. Once a better batteries/hydrogen come to market with a reasonable price, it will make sense even more to use drones. The benefit is fully autonomous operation with very small footprint over the crops, flying in a constant 2-3m height over the crops and keeping this distance constant even in hilly terrain (good terrain following feature with good sensors). This is something a large helicopter or plane cannot achieve. And obviously you use spray only sometimes based on previous drone mapping of the area so you should save on inputs. The other question is, if this is a long term sustainable future we are looking for.. But I'm not agronomist, farmer or rule maker to know this..

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    • I spray now Michael. In the US at least, there will be no legal spraying in the next 2-5 years, and potentially the next ten to twenty. The list of hoops to jump through will be found to be long and complicated. We've been trying to get a set of rules from the FAA for UAS below 55#'s for a few years now. Part 107 is at least another year off now. Since water is eight pounds a gallon, the next thing we'll need is rules for above 55#'s. Probably another few years after the initial Part 107 implementation.
      Then there will be many issues to be addressed with the individual states' ag departments and the EPA on the actual application side.
      There is no place for electricity in aerial spraying with the length of days to be flown.
      For example, two issues with your "swarm" perspective;
      1. Every time a piece of equipment is loaded it is considered a point of potential exposure or spill. If you have to load 30 little teeny pieces of equipment 30 times to finish a field that is 900 possible points of exposure or spill.
      If you load one large piece of equipment 30 times to do the same job, that's only 30 points of exposure or spill.
      Insurance will be higher for a greater risk and the EPA and states' ag departments will have added containment and/or loader PPE and/or mixing equipment (such as closed loop) requirements for such operations.
      2. Currently in a non-swarm scenario there is one applicator's license per piece of operating equipment.
      In the event of an application violation, how many pieces of equipment will the EPA allow to be tied to one apllicator's license? For that matter, how many pieces of equipment will a licensed applicator want to be responsible for when he/she can't specifically be in control of them because he/she will be the ones directly responsible for paying the subsequent fine in the event of a violation?

      I fly a bunch of hilly terrain in Idaho, I do achieve even altitude enough to not have any blemishes in my work. That is how you stay employed in this business, clean work, year after year.

      We already only spray sometimes. It's just currently based on foot scouting/field sweeping, satellite or aircraft imagery. The farmers still don't spend money for no reason now.

      We are looking for sustainability if we want to keep feeding 7.3 billion people and growing.
    • OK many news for me. Thanks for the info !

      I never did such application with drones, I just know there some, even DJI came with one last month. I can only imagine how these flying robots could potentially work in a swarm autonomously, even the loading of the liquid could be autonomous so no danger of a spill as you say if the system is well programmed and tested.

      As for a failure, that is the same with anything you use. I know your point, using more drones means more points to fail. But if the drone is not expensive, why not. Right now the pirces start at cca 10-15000USD per drone equiped with such spray equipment and that is roughly just 10min endurance on batteries. So yes battery life is a problem but for a small field I think it's ok. For large fields, well hydrogen is the future I guess. But unless a gas is cheaper than hydrogen, it will be a long way to become reality. And of cource another thing are the rules by FAA etc. If this application is banned, you can hardly do anything but wait and develop in the meantime until the attitude changes. I don't know EPA, PPE or anything like that, I'm not from USA but anyway there are surely things to change and it will be long path.

    • With autonomous loading you are now adding a whole new level of headaches and approvals. Not to mention that there are reasons to have human eyes on the mixing and loading portion of the job. One of those being product compatibility. Not all of the components to every mix work well together and they try to create a mix of mayonnaise like consistency. This can be saved if it is caught in time and water added, but that requires eyes and knowledge. Again, totally possible to mix and load autonomously, but let's just deal with the autonomous flying first. One step at a time. There is always possibility of a spill because hoses can always blow and fittings can fail, autonomous or not.
      The main problem is that you can't get anything done with the little $15,000 UAS. You can't get much done with the $125,000 Yamaha RMAX/Fazer for that matter. Not nearly enough to justify that much money in comparison to a $125,000 manned ag aircraft. Again, in business the numbers either work or they don't.
      The second answer to your "why not" has to do with the payload. When a UAS failure occurs in a field, it may not hurt anyone directly (and it may for that matter), but it will still have a payload of chemicals to potentially be cleaned up. In our state we deal with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to facilitate clean ups in the event of a crash/spill. No matter the amount spilled, the initial procedure is the same. It's a numbers game, the more you have out moving through the air, the better the odds will be that one or more will crash and spill.
      I don't know about hydrogen, our society is currently based on burning fuel in combustion engines. Another long term thought to your UAS aerial application concept that will add more time to the timeline of them actually feasibly working on a daily basis, profitably.
    • Oh, and the biggest current issue in an unsubsidized capitalist system, price.
      This DPI was at our convention last month. It costs the same roughly $400,000.00 (that's four hundred thousand dollars) as the used Jet Ranger in the background currently and can only haul half the load with about one fifth the swath width, and no current legal ability to work.
      I did have a few lengthy intellectual conversations with the designers and they have many things figured out. At the same time, they are a loooooong way off from many operational considerations in aerial application.
      It'll come, just years and years off.

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  • The opportunities will exist for the existing service providers. When and where they see it being a financial advantage. Crop scouting is not new, crop scouting with imagery is not new. The chemical sales companies have provided fieldmen to scout for growers on foot for years, and aerial imagery companies have provided aircraft with cameras for years.
    Many of the chemical companies provide the foot scouting for free as part of the chemical sales charges. If they see the UAS scouting as a benefit, they will add a couple to their inventory and train their existing scouts to operate them as part of their existing job. The problem still lies with the need to walk a field in the identified spots to see exactly what the problem is. If it's got to be walked and swept, why not just walk it and sweep it? So there may be some for the manufacturers to sell to the existing chemical companies, but not so much to outside contractors or for the individual farmers to operate themselves. Not none, just not many.
    Many of my customers utilize bi-weekly aerial imagery from aircraft. The problem for the UAS is amount of acres to be covered per hour. This is because many of us in ag charge by the acre, not the hour. The airplane may only have 4,000 acres per grower with three growers in an area and then need to go 300 miles to the next area. With favorable weather they can fly the 12k in two days, then fly in two hours what it takes seven hours to drive, and be gathering imagery of the second area by mid-morning of the third day. They might do this in four or five valleys of a three or four state area and then start the cycle again fourteen days later, with weather and maintenance delays accounted for.
    With UAS you can't cover the acres to make the gross numbers work profitably for the long-term viability of the business, especially if you have to drive long distances between farming valleys. I have noticed many coming to ag from the tech world have to wrap their heads around the fact that ag is not five days a week, 52 weeks a year, and if we don't get it this week, we'll get it next. Doesn't work that way. You'll get it this week, or you'll lose it. That's where size and production ability comes into play. Most growing seasons are 12-16 weeks. If they want bi-weekly that gives an average of seven rotations per year of profit potential. You can't be late coming back around, they don't care what your problems are, ag is production focused. So you can take fourteen days and subtract about five or six of those for weather and breakdowns and driving between sites, no Sundays and holidays off! Which leaves you about eight to nine days per round of actual production potential days, then multiply that by your acres per day, and multiply that by your price per acre, and that by seven rotations in 14 weeks, and then you have your possible gross. Subtract out your expenses such as mileage, maintenance, payroll, equipment payments, hotels and meals on the road, and licensing and registration. Then you'll have an idea what your net can be after a season.
    They still have to be viable businesses for the independent contractor. For the chemical company turning millions in chemical sales in addition to imagery services, or for the farmer (who doesn't have time for another task in his day) who can spend $30k in equipment costs inside of a couple of $400,000 new tractors, probably not so much.
    It'll be used, just not by a bunch of one or three-man start ups. Not none, just not many.
  • Having been in the field for a few years now my perspective has changed somewhat. Many folks, including myself, over-estimated the rate of adoption by farmers. I think it can be attributed to a belief that aerial imagery would be a clear benefit in most farming situations and would be a cheaper way to get information similar to what can be obtained from satellite imagery. This turned out not to be true. There are many factors that work against adoption: the FAA has not yet been able to provide the necessary regulatory framework; the cost is much higher than expected due to the smaller than expected number of acres; most UAS imagery is not well-suited for trend analysis over time due to the difficulty of getting repeatable, quantitative results when taking the "quick and easy" approach; many companies over-sell the technology as "easy" and "low cost"; many companies provide products that are not suitable.

    I still see a slow growth in agricultural use, but it is much more targeted and individualized than expected. The question that so many marketers try to answer: "What is the economic benefit?", is often not answerable because the applications tend to be unique. Probably the biggest use has been as a diagnostic tool, rather than as a routine procedure. The very high spatial resolution and unique perspective can be invaluable when trying to identify and quantify a specific problem as it emerges. 

    Betting on rapid growth will be a mistake and many companies will fall by the wayside, but growth will continue and the farming community will adopt the technology where and when it makes sense. 

  • Hi everyone,
    The use of UAV in Ag is predicated on cost and benefit. There is no upside in my travelling a day to do a 100 acre vineyard unless the owner wants to pay a lot of money [one has to budget on costs plus min $1000/day].
    The only business case that makes sense is an agronomist flying a simplified UAV with a very simple NVDI type sensor that gives prompt data delivery with fairly accurate GPS [RTK even better].
    This allows the Agronomist to ground truth the spectral data as the data is subject to may variables and it is not possible to just supply a colour rendition of chlorphyl reflectance and an account.
    I am hoping to just this, supply a Ebee type aircraft [so simple simple] with a bullet proof NVDI sensor delivering in semi realtime.
    The cost of this system has to be less than US$15000 to gain market share.
    Its a viable business model but one that needs careful administration so that safety is maintained.
    • Thanks for the reply, I think you have a good plan and a realistic view of the market.  The $15,000 is probably realistic when you consider needing a backup drone, camera, and extra supples.  and the $1000/day is realisitic.  I guess now is he time to see if farmers can see the value.

      I have heard it is best to target high$$ crops where a 10 -15% improvement will be profitable enough to make the cost per acre worth while.

      Good luck

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