Over the past few years, the press has emphasized how much commercial drones will be used to improve farming. The assumption is that drones provide more accurate data for use in variable rate technology (VRT) so farmers who use drones will experience increased yields.  But truth be told very little has been written about the measurable benefits and it’s yet to be proven just how effective UAS will be in helping farmers increase yields. With that in mind, we just released The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, a free research study that reviews those benefits and challenges.

The report is the first in series of studies sponsored by BZ Media that looks objectively at each major market for drones and drone technology. In this paper, we look at how drones have been used as remote sensing devices in agriculture thus far, review competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discuss the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself, outline the lessons learned, and discuss what’s next for drones in agriculture. Here is an excerpt:

“For the most part, recent technology advancements in small UAS equipped with good sensors support the farmer’s and/or researcher’s ability to locate a precise position in a field, observe it, and create maps of as many variables as can be measured — but only on a small scale. That’s because under current FAA rules, all observation and measurement would have to be done by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. The problem is that fields and farms are big– bigger than VLOS.  According to this report, there are approximately 2.1 million farms in America.  The average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 percent of farms.  That’s 1.85 million farms that could benefit immediately from VLOS operations.  But large family farms (averaging 1,421 acres) and very large family farms (averaging 2,086 acres) make up 36 percent of the total farm acres in the U.S., so most of that would require beyond VLOS operations.

Sure, operators could conduct many operations in a day by moving section to section to section and stitching together larger maps for large or very large acre farms, but this is costly – both in terms of manpower and time. Even if it was cheaper, the market potential for drones in precision agriculture still needs more vetting. Despite the ROI studies like this one by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Measure, it’s not yet clear how a sUAS can deliver more usable data to a farmer or provide a cost benefit over the existing manned aircraft or the satellite image solutions available to them today.”

The paper goes on to analyze six use cases for drones in agriculture in great detail - including using drones for crop vigor assessment and the use of prescription maps. You can find out more about the report and download for free it here.

If you have questions about what's in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it please post below or write me colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Colby AgTech

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  • Thanks for your insight Daryl.

  • We've come to similar conclusions after a series of field trials in Australia. Taking into account all the input costs, including the farmer's time, the business case for drones in agriculture only starts to get strong if unsupervised BVLOS flight becomes legal. For many use cases and crop types, imagery from satellites with low revisit period and high-resolution will make more sense while being less fiddly.

  • @Jack - The MarketsandMarkets is very expensive science fiction - some science and a lot of fiction.  I wrote about these "fantasy forecasts" here http://droneanalyst.com/2015/06/04/diversity-and-hype-in-commercial... and in the report.  

  • So that's 4.2092 Billion? ^

  • The agriculture drones market is expected to reach USD 4,209.2 Million by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 30.19% during the forecast period. To Get More Details @ http://bit.ly/29afMFj

    Agriculture Drones Market | Analysis by Growth and Forecast to 2024 | MarketsandMarkets
    Agriculture Drones Market Research Report, identifies new revenue opportunity in agriculture drones industry. The report aims at estimating the marke…
  • Without signing up for the download and associated "promotional material" a couple of thoughts occur to me based on the information presented above.

    For a moment presume there is a 2 tier system: Local UAS owned directly by farmers or a small local collective and Large scale UAS service providers.

    It seems to me that in the scale of the small farms the first tier kind of system could make a lot of sense with relatively low investment and potentially valuable feedback.

    Also rather than continuously monitoring entire farms, it seems to me spot checking based on known or suspected problem areas could provide more worthwhile ROI.

    Of course, following spot checking spot remediation could also potentially be provided by appropriate UAS as well.

    Either fertilizer or pest control.

    Small farmers have often invested in cooperatives for significant equipment who's direct ownership cannot be readily justified by a small farm, so this is a natural progression.

    As for the big guys, they are actually an economic driving force, and in the end the FAA and it's assorted regulations will accommodate them to whatever degree is necessary.

    And looking at how the FAA has been moving lately, it seems like it would be likely to be sooner rather than later.

    Best Regards,


  • Hi Acorn - You ask a good question.  Unfortunately, the answer is maps and analytics only point to potential problems - not always actual problems. Whatever a map or analytic finds still needs to be "ground-truthed" by a crop specialist / agronomist. So the answer is no, one single drone cannot do that - at least not yet (and maybe never) because it requires manual intervention. In the paper you will find a link to a page on the senseFly website with a pretty complete step-by-step guide that explains how drones fit within the precision crop scouting workflow and it shows which parts are done manually in the field by people. - Colin

  • A direct link to the download would be good. I get enough marketing material as it is.

  • This is probably Ph.D level work, but optimizing swarm mapping for mesh comms in BVLOS may matter, as the combination of area/altitude restrictions/available comms infrastructure means for larger farms they are default in need of fleet mapping with organic BVLOS comms. Oddly enough, that makes sectored/directional antenna setups like the Pharos more interesting. There are commercial sectored wifi AP's for conference halls that feature 16 or more sectors for reference.

  • Moderator
    Also, one of the benefits of manned aircraft is that they can fly at an altitude that allows them to image a field in a single image.
    With multispectral images, this can eliminate a lot of opportunity for "bad" data resulting from combining many images.
    Not a limitation of technology by any means, just the legality.
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