The Truth About Drones In Precision Agriculture

Drone Analyst - Colin Snow, CEO and Founder, Skylogic Research

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Knowledge level: Intermediate

Farm Table says:

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Colin Snow, CEO and Founder of Skylogic Research, states that “truth be told, it’s yet to be proven just how effective UAS will be in helping farmers increase yields”. 

The by-line of this report is “They’re great scouting tools, but can they unseat the incumbents?” To answers this, the paper looks how drones have been used in agriculture so far, review approaches to using technology, the opportunities and challenges, lessons learnt, and what’s next for drones in agriculture.

“Drones equipped with sensors acquire data, not information, and users – especially growers – want information, not data. So whatever data the drone captures needs to be converted into useful information for farmers.”

Snow lists six uses of drones, in order of increasing complexity:

  1. Simple crop scouting
  2. Irrigation inspection
  3. Precision spraying
  4. Maps of individual fields or segments
  5. Insurance claim forensics
  6. Crop vigour assessment and the use of prescription maps

The opportunities for drones espoused in the article include:

  • Farmers have access to low-cost drones with cameras and image sensors on board. These can be purchased for a few thousand dollars and flown by farmer themselves
  • Small drones are portable, and users can fly them over a field and see real-time images on a monitor

The challenges for drones espoused in the article include:

  • Support precision positioning in a field, but on a small scale
  • Rules and legislation
  • Notyet 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.

Use of aerial imagery all sounds great until you start to look at the numbers. According to this report by Department of Agricultural Economics and Agronomy at Purdue University, only 20.3% of service providers who offer satellite/aerial imagery say it’s profitable. And with UAV services, it’s even less. Only 13.5% of dealers say they’re profitable.

What’s next?

Snow states:

“What seems to be missing from today’s drone data service providers is the expertise to interpret the data, verify it with what is actually happening in the field (aka “ground truthing”), and recommend a course of action. Services that deliver aerial imaging can provide the data, but someone needs to invest the time, money, skills, and software to get actionable insight from it.” 

2016 - United States - Drone Analyst - Colin Snow, CEO and Founder, Skylogic Research
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