In a quick google you will find numerous articles proclaiming that drones are going to revolutionize agriculture. Additionally you will find research indicating that agriculture will represent a massive slice of the drone industry. Rather than discuss mundane macroeconomic research, I’d like to share a few personal thoughts & observations as to how drones are being used in Ag currently, and where I see future hardware & software opportunities. Keep in mind that my opinions are the result of growing up in large-scale commercial Ag — picture tens of thousands of acres planted to corn, soybeans and sorghum. As such, these opinions may or may not apply to your 50 acre vineyard in Sonoma or your 8 acre organic garden in Portland.
So far, the primary Ag use-case we’re seeing is field mapping. The hardware players are the usual suspects: DJI, 3DR, Event38, AgEagle, and Parrot with the eBee. However an interesting dynamic is that a copter cannot cover commercial Ag acreage. Until battery technology makes a huge leap your only option is to employ a fixed wing. With DJI’s entire aerial product line being some sort of copter, Ag imaging is a playground in which the incumbent DJI is not playing (yet). The software players are primarily orthomosaic autopilots such as DroneDeploy and MapsMadeEasy. A few are offering cloud stitching services with many users pointing to DroneDeploy’s map engine as a leader. You can find a lower priced alternative in MapsMadeEasy, but it is less feature-rich.
The simple weight of imagery data required to map 800 acres creates a processing bottleneck. In most cases the data is captured in remote locations with little to no connectivity, so immediate linkages to the cloud are challenging. Even after crop scouts take the imagery back to the office, the office itself is typically in a community without blazing fast google fiber type connections; so simply uploading data “from the office” will be a painfully slow process for many operators. Then you start dealing with the processing horsepower required to quickly stitch an orthomosaic. A company called DroneData is starting to address the horsepower bottleneck for Pix4D users by investing in servers that are built to handle resource hungry applications specific to the drone industry.
Remember that for decades farmers have been using satellite imagery to obtain an aerial perspective. Drones can provide a more ‘on-demand’ perspective, but there are new mini-satellite fleets like Planet Labs which narrow the on-demand gap. In many cases satellites provide aerial imagery at a fraction of the cost of UAVs. A crop consulting firm who oversees our cropland in the Texas panhandle recently explained,
“we were really excited about drones. Thinking it would completely change our business, we ran out and purchased 30-40 UAVs. But learning how to operate fixed wing hardware/software was just too much of a pain compared to satellites and we’ve basically killed our UAV program. We’ll still use a Phantom every now and then when a client wants a quick aerial view, but we’ve sold off most of our drones and we’re down to about 3-4 quadcopters and one fixed wing.”
There remains friction for the average operator to get quickly from field to actionable data. The hardware usability and data processing issues must be seamlessly ironed out before we see mass UAV adoption in commercial agriculture imaging. If you want to speak with a lead researcher, check out Dr. Alex Thomasson at Texas A&M university.
The reality is farmers are not in the business of taking pictures, they’re in the business of producing millions of pounds of product. As such things will get exciting when farmers gain access to drones that can perform physical tasks, such as DJI’s Agras MG-1. In addressing chemical applications DJI is making a play in the right direction. Chemicals are a huge input on farms and chemical companies have massive budgets to scoop up large flocks of drone spray-rigs. If anybody at DJI is reading this – send over an Agras MG-1 for testing on sorghum seed production plots this summer!
At the end of the day agriculturalists are a resourceful bunch excited to adopt technology. When reliable and user-friendly options become available, we will see rapid adoption.