Drones in Agriculture, Then and Now

August 30, 2017

Here at DroneDeploy, we usually consider ourselves future-focused, but today we’re dialing the clock back a few years. It’s 2013. “Selfie” is the newest word in the Oxford dictionary, the pope just signed onto Twitter for the first time, and DroneDeploy is a newly launched startup. For the most part, the general public’s knowledge of commercial drones begins and ends with Jeff Bezos’ dreams of UAV-powered package delivery. As for drones in agriculture? At this point, most farmers would say it’s a nonstarter. But all of that is about to change.

Fast forward to August 2017. Today, agriculture is one of the fastest growing markets for the commercial drone industry. Thousands of DroneDeploy users create ag-focused drone maps and models on a regular basis. In just under five years, drones have gone from a toy for gadget junkies to an essential tool in any ag professional’s toolbox. So how did we get here? And what can we expect from drones in agriculture over the next five years?

Read on to learn about the evolution of drones in agriculture, and hear what you can expect from UAVs in the months and years to come.

The Early Days of Drones in Agriculture: High Price Tags and Low Usability

The Early Days of Drones in Agriculture: High Price Tags and Low Usability

The early challenges of drones in agriculture can be boiled down to two things: cost and usability. For starters, five years ago a fixed wing drone with a high-definition camera, capable of flying midrange distances, cost between $10–30K. The computer hardware and stitching software required to process drone maps cost several thousand more. For all but a handful of major agronomist companies and co-ops, this was a tough price tag to stomach, especially for a technology that had done little to prove its worth to the average farmer.

But aside from the obvious cost barriers, why hadn’t drone technology proven its worth to the agriculture industry back in 2013? For starters, user-friendly mapping solutions like DroneDeploy weren’t yet on the market, so a farmer had to possess a good deal of technical knowledge just to stitch a map of his fields. All of this had to be done locally, as opposed to in the cloud — requiring a powerful desktop pc — and it took upwards of two days just to process a map. When you’re talking about a disease that’s killing your crops, two days might as well be a lifetime.

For those persistent few who pushed through to create drone maps of their fields, the resulting data was not as useful as people initially hoped it would be — growers had been promised big things. To be fair, this wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the commercial drone industry. But for all intents and purposes, drone technology was in its infancy.

Five years ago, high-resolution sensors like Tetracam were already available and capable of capturing quality data. But the industry was just beginning to figure out what to do with all of that data. In short, the UAV industry needed to figure out how to take a 160-acre map of a cornfield and make it useful for a farmer standing at the edge of that field and worried about the upcoming harvest.

Drones Today: Cloud Computing and Advanced Analytics Bring Real Value to Growers and Agronomists

Drones Today: Cloud Computing and Advanced Analytics Bring Real Value to Growers and Agronomists

Over the past several years, advances in technology have made the price of drone hardware far more accessible to the average agriculture professional. Quadcopters are easier to produce, motors are more efficient, and battery life has increased. With DJI leading the way, a farmer can purchase a mapping drone for between one and three-thousand dollars, lowering the barrier of entry and making the risk of investing in drones far more palatable.

Once a farmer does take the plunge and purchase a drone, the mapping process is far more user-friendly than it once was. For starters, household internet speeds have increased considerably, making it possible for much of the world’s computing to move to the cloud. Drone mapping is no exception. Now, instead of gathering data, returning to a desktop computer and going through the laborious process of stitching a map locally, a farmer can take his tablet or smartphone, fly 160-acres on just one battery, and upload the imagery to the cloud for processing once it lands. Mapping software companies like DroneDeploy do the rest and a farmer doesn’t need to have any technical knowledge about photogrammetry to make this happen.

As an industry, we also have a far better idea about what to do with all of this drone data. Although we still have much to learn, companies like Agremo, Aglytix, and Skymatics have developed solutions that count plants, analyze stand counts, and calculate crop damage. Major players like John Deere, Case IH-New Holland (CNH), and Climate Precision have begun to recognize the value this level of analytics brings to the world of agriculture, and have thrown their hats in the ring to create field solutions for the DroneDeploy App Marketplace.

For our part, DroneDeploy users recently reached the milestone of 10-million acres mapped using our software. Our large base of users in the agriculture field consistently challenge us to improve and refine our software and analytics. Some of our most recent ag-related advances include:

  • Improved image stitching that removes 90% of holes in late-season crop maps.
  • Compatibility with Sentera and SLANTRANGE, advanced near-infrared and multispectral sensors designed specifically for agriculture.
  • Fieldscanner: Create real-time maps and use drone data to act quickly against crop threats before the drone even lands.

As an industry, we’ve come a long way over the past five years. But no one will deny that there is still so much to learn about drones and their possibilities for the world of agriculture. So the real question is: where do we go from here?

Looking Ahead: The Future of UAV Technology in Agriculture

Looking Ahead: The Future of UAV Technology in Agriculture

There is a reason we’ve made DroneDeploy easy to use, affordable, and compatible on all devices. We want users to be able to collect the most data possible. As we look forward toward the next five years, it’s time to flex the computer vision and machine learning muscle — and put that data to the best use.

We’re just seeing the beginning of what’s possible with drones. In the near future, I expect drones to be present in almost any industry, operating autonomously on schedules to produce highly accurate data in real time.

- Mike Winn, CEO and co-founder, DroneDeploy

As an industry, we’re working hard to better understand remote sensing and how we can fully integrate machine learning analytics with drone data to deliver insights that are meaningful to farmers. We will undoubtedly see advancements in sensor technology and new information about weed signatures that allow us to better analyze crops and differentiate specific types of weeds and pests.

Looking ahead a little further, we expect Internet of Things (IoT) technology to begin to make itself into the world of UAVs. In the next five to ten years, we hope drone technology can identify specific types of crop stress, complete financial calculations about the feasibility of treatment, and then send that data directly to equipment in the field.

Sound like science fiction? We don’t think so. After all, CNH recently released a fully-autonomous tractor that allows farmers to be far more efficient, only involved directly in the deployment of the machine. In the future, we hope human labor will be taken out of the equation for drones in much the same way. Autonomous, timed deployments and beyond line-of-sight flights are all within the realm of possibility. It may sound like an overstatement now, but we can imagine a day when owning a drone on the farm is no more cutting edge than owning a tractor or a combine. If drone data helps growers and agronomists gain better insights, make more informed decisions, and reduce losses in the field — the real question is: why not?

Where to Learn More

If you haven’t tried our Fieldscanner and it’s ability to create agriculture maps in real time, now might be the day to do it. Learn more about it here.

Our July product release wrap-up has more information about other recent ag-related advances.

Or, if you are a pro looking to advance your skills in crop scouting and field management, our agriculture drone clinic series is a useful tool.

Watch our recent webinar to learn how to use drones for more accurate identification of crop trends over time using multispectral imagery

Want to put your drone to work in the field today? Read our guide to crop scouting with drones.

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