According to a survey carried out by Drone Life, only a third of farmers have plans to use drones this year. In less developed countries, the number of farmers using drones is undoubtedly even lower. This is all in spite of the fact that drones have never been more available and adapted for agricultural use before.
So why aren’t more farmers making use of this great new tech?
Can farmers afford drones?
Investing in drones, like most tech, isn’t cheap. There are the upfront costs of the drones then you’ll need to have the right software to make use of them and maybe even training to ensure you know how to use them properly. Then of course you’ll need to set aside money in case your drone breaks down, needs replacing or repairing.
This will all add up and if farmers aren’t convinced that drones will help them make a return on their investment, drones aren’t going to take off at all.
Will Bignell, the drone expert who runs DroneAg is confident that anyone who bought their products and drone services has “made their money back, if not doubled it, in first production.”
On the other side of the world Kevin Price, a plant ecologist from Kansas state university predicts that drones will help to increase profits on high-value produce especially, such as tomatoes.
All of this seems to be suggesting that drones are only an option for the wealthy farmer who invests in high-value crops only and has the cash spare to afford drones on his farm. But is this strictly true? Here’s how much drones are costing on the current market:
senseFly eBee SQ. This is a very advanced agricultural drone, equipped with a 5 sensor spectrum, advanced flight planning, flight management and image processing software. It can cover 5 acres very quickly (for a drone) and provide you with detailed data such as soil h2o levels, soil temperature, plant counts and more. The price tag? $12,000+. This is a lot of money but gives you all the data you need for precision agriculture, if you know what you’re doing. These drones are not for amateurs.
PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package. This is a complete drone set that’s boasted as a great box set for drone beginners. Still, the price is $1,989 which isn’t overly cheap when you consider its limited functionality. This drone doesn’t have the sensors that you’ll find on the top of the range drone market. It has simple cameras that can handle simple tasks like photographing fields to highlight potential problem areas from above; all controlled from a smartphone app. Do you think this is $1,989 well spent or would you be better off just walking around your fields to spot problems from ground level?
Most other drones fall somewhere in between those two in terms of price and functionality. With such variation in drones available, it begs the question of what farmers prefer to use the drones for on their farms.
What are farmers using drones for?
Going back to basics, a drone is ultimately a way to survey your farm from the air. And that’s what most farmers appear to be using the drones for.
Bignell says that for many farmers, ‘drones in agriculture’ actually means “using an off-the-shelf drone to fly around herding sheep or looking for stuck cows, checking the back block and just general scouting,” rather than gathering data for precision agriculture.
When looking at the cost of professional agriculture drones this doesn’t really come as much of a surprise, but cost might not be the only thing holding farmers back.
Firstly, air space rules and drone flying regulations. These vary by country and region, so you’ll want to check yours before flying any sort of drone.
In the US you’ll need to adhere to FAA drone guidelines as well as any state laws. To get your remote pilot certificate so you can legally fly your drone you’ll need to pass a written test. Sounds simple, but passing the test doesn’t mean you really know how to fly a drone safely and use all the functions of your drone. That comes with training, or trial and error practice which can be costly and dangerous.
Using the data that drones collect about your farm is the whole point of precision agriculture. If you can’t make use of the data to improve your farm and grow crops more efficiently, then your drones are nothing more than expensive toys.
When used properly, drones can return some really useful data that you can use to make your farm much more efficient. From things like detecting plant stress before it’s immediately visible to determining soil moisture levels in fields and even monitoring breeding habits in cattle and acting as a sheepdog.
Where is the industry heading?
Clearly, the agricultural drone industry still has a way to go before it’s truly accessible for all farmers across the world. Yet this technology is sorely needed if we’re really going to provide our growing population with the food it needs.
Luckily there may be solutions coming that don’t rely on drones at all, removing the problems of learning to fly a drone and utilising the data. For example, take a look at Blue River Technology, an agriculture start-up that’s developed the See & Spray machine to target herbicides onto weeds, while completely avoiding the crops. Precision agriculture doesn’t need to start in the skies; in fact it’s the sensor part of drones that’s really important, not the aerial view.
Since the popularity of drones has rocketed, many different drone service providers have popped up, meaning you can hire a drone or have a team do all the drone work for you, leaving you with just the all important data. We highly recommend giving this a go. Not only does it give you some great insights into your own farm and precision agriculture, but it will give you a taster of how drones can work and help you decide if they’d be a good investment for your farm on a permanent basis.
Any farmer that’s interested in pursuing precision agriculture shouldn’t be put off by the cost and hassle of drones! Collecting data and using it wisely is the important part. We wish you all good luck!