November 21, 2013

Remote-controlled robotic crop scouts in the sky? Tiny helicopters with HD aerial video capabilities for recording weed infestations in a field? Yes, it’s happening.

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner, Entira

I know a few farmers who have high-tech gadgets on their holiday wish lists this year—perhaps a multirotor crop scouting kit with thermal image capture…or maybe a quadcopter with an attached HD video camera…or a fixed-wing autonomous plane with on-board wi-fi.

Unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs, for short—are becoming a widely talked about topic in the agriculture industry. Their appeal as “something to play around with” is on the rise. Farmers who purchase UAVs are doing so largely out of curiosity about what kind of data they can capture on their farm; however, a lack of regulation around the commercial use of UAVs puts strict limitations on how much farmers can actually do with them.

Though the mindset today may be, “let’s see what these birds can do,” in the future these sky robots are predicted to be a useful and cost-saving tool in the farmers’ precision technology toolbox. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is leading a global advocacy effort around improving humanity through the use of robotic technology. According to a March 2013 AUVSI report, UAVs have the potential to generate $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025. The organization predicts the agriculture sector will be the leading user of unmanned aerial systems, totaling 80 percent of all commercial usage (with public safety coming in as a distant second).

Given these numbers, as of late AUVSI is focusing squarely on agriculture.

“We’ve all heard those numbers predicting what it’s going to take to feed people in 2050,” says Gretchen West, executive vice president of AUVSI . “We look at UAVs as an extra asset that farmers can use to be more efficient. One of our goals is to help put together a compelling picture that shows how UAVs can help improve crop yields and productivity on the farm.”

Regulation is in the works, but it’s moving slowly. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is writing regulations on how UAV technology can be used commercially, and that isn’t expected until September 2015. Public safety and privacy concerns have impeded progress in moving this legislation forward.

“AUVSI is already active on Capitol Hill, and next year we’ll be focusing more of our work on getting the attention of the Agriculture Committee,” West says, with hopes there could be allowances for agriculture earlier than that 2015 deadline. We will talk more about the regulatory hurdles in next month’s issue of Strategic Agribusiness Review

What can UAVs do on the farm?

The same technology used by the military for reconnaissance missions can be used to scout diseased crops or irrigation issues. In a matter of hours, UAVs can capture images and collect data on field conditions—data that would take days to gather by walking through a field. Used the right way, they can help farmers more strategically and efficiently plan when they plant, fertilize, water, and even harvest their crops. That can mean big cost savings over thousands of acres.

Here are a few specific ways UAVs could be used in farming:

  • Up-close surveillance, generating high-resolution data of crops
  • Planning for improvements in drainage systems
  • Making crop yield estimates
  • Inspecting buildings and fields for hail damage
  • Locating missing livestock
  • Spraying for pests and diseases

There aren’t many limits on recreational uses of UAVs, meaning a farmer can fly it over his own operation and take pictures and video of anything he wants, adhering to the standards set forth by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). What he can’t do is outsource the equipment for use on other farm operations, or by crop scouts or insurance companies to do the work for him.

Going from hobby to indispensable tool

Today any farmer can go to a hobby store and buy a simple unmanned aerial device for as low as $300 and fly it over his property. Regulatory obstacles aside, how do we take UAVs from “cool gadget” to indispensable tool? How can it become an extra asset to protect crops and increase yields, and part of a lucrative business for other ag organizations?

Here’s what we know for sure: UAV technology will give farmers more data, more quickly than any other precision ag technology. And also like any other precision ag technology, the potential mountain of data coming from these machines is immense. Knowing what to do with the data and how to put it to work for their operation will be farmers’ greatest challenge. What equipment can it carry? What data can it collect? What analytic systems could be used or created to make sense of the data? By making this kind of data analytics part of their business capabilities, ag companies can help influence and answer some of these questions for the industry.

In the future, as commercial restrictions loosen up, organizations will undoubtedly be clamoring to create business plans that integrate UAVs. We have an opportunity now to prime the industry and help build energy and momentum around this issue—supporting what AUVSI is doing, partnering with equipment manufacturers who have little agriculture experience, preparing farmers for how to make UAVs a key component of their precision technology practices. These are just a few of the ways we can have influence, and it’s certainly worthwhile to consider where your business fits in. If you’d like to discuss those opportunities, please give me a call at 901.734.3245 or email mkarst@entira.net.

Read our second article on this topic, "UAVs in Agriculture: Rules of the Sky."