Great report from the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo; focus on agriculture

Andra Keay has a terrific report on RoboHub on last week's SUSBX conference in SF, which was really excellent (sold out, great speakers, fantastic venue). She highlights some themes, including the paradox of ITAR (intended to control arms, it actually often forces companies to become "arms dealers" because military sales are the only ones allowed), and public controversy over drones, which parallels the controversy over the introduction of automobiles in the early 20th Century. 

Here's her section on drones and agriculture, which is the subject I spoke on:

As the AUVSI report from March 12 2013 explains, agriculture is the optimal vertical for unmanned systems at the moment, and can deliver billions of dollars of economic value alongside thousands of jobs and the social good of reduced pesticide/fertilizer use. The barriers to entry are lowest and the potential returns are the highest in this market. There were several speakers focussing on aspects of this area including Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics, one of the fastest growing venture backed robotics startups in the Valley. 3D Robotics has iterated from a DIY community supplier to a consumer robot company, and now to a data and payload service provider.

As Chris Anderson asked, what is drone data good for? Vineyards currently use an analog sensor technology that has been unchanged for thousands of years. There is a rose at the end of each row of grapes and the rose is an early warning for fungal infections. Drones can expedite our emerging ‘Big Data’ capabilities in agriculture, which is the largest industry in the world.

Half of our agricultural inputs (e.g. water, fertilizer) are being wasted because the cost of not treating is greater than the waste cost. Knowledge of where there were leaks in the system would allow for adjustment and an opportunity for closed-loop farming. Farmers want this but they don’t necessarily care about the technology that delivers the data. Drone developers need to talk to farmers in order to create custom trusted solutions.

The folks at 3D Robotics have been talking to a lot of farmers in the last year and have found that each farm is different, not just each crop. Anderson says that companies need to build a community interface and offer a multi-solution package. For example, a farmer should be able to deploy a rover or a copter or a fixed wing system with equal ease, depending on requirements. It should be as simple as picking up a tablet, drawing your boundary, pushing a button to go.

The industry is still at a very early stage, with most customers in it ‘for bragging rights’ rather than economic benefit, however in a short time there should be a bank of success stories to draw on that will support future growth. The market opportunity is in delivering insight, not just drones. It’s about image acquisition, processing and locating. Georeferencing is a significant field opportunity. Data may be freely available but it’s the processing and the insight that offers huge commercial opportunities.

Anderson said, “Stewart Brand is often misquoted.  Yes, he said “information wants to be free” but he also said that “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. [Whole Earth Review, May 1985, p. 49.]

Read the whole thing here

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Comment by Deon van der Merwe on July 28, 2013 at 1:56am
Something that should form part of the "information wants to be free" debate is the sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, difference between data and information. We all have seen many crop fields, but the average Joe looking at a crop field don't know what to do with the data, while an expert farmer can derive a whole lot of useful information from the data. UAVs produce new data by placing a sensor in the sky, but UAVs do not produce information without an expert in the loop. Expertise is the alchemy that transforms data into information.
Comment by Spencer on July 28, 2013 at 8:03am

Very interesting article. I've seen and heard more and more about using SUAS for agriculture. I think this is a great way to show everyone how SUAS can benefit society. 

Comment by LanMark on July 28, 2013 at 2:55pm
Totally agree. There are so many sources that generate data.. Crazy amounts of data but it really takes a expert to understand what it really means.. Otherwise you are swimming in it and no way to really make good decisions based on the data.
Comment by John Githens on July 28, 2013 at 4:24pm

I wish that I could write half as well as Andra Keay (who I have not met). An excellent report that matches my impressions first-hand at the Expo. Looking forward to seeing the edited videos of the event.

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