Specializing in Scalability – The Realities of Drones in AgDecember 12, 2018
By Norm Lamothe, Head of UAS – Agriculture at Deveron UAS
Norm Lamothe is an entrepreneur with a diverse set of skills obtained through extensive industry experience in aviation and agriculture. In addition to his role with Deveron, he lives on and manages his family’s diverse, multi-generational 500-acre farm, located in eastern Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Given the recent surge in hardware companies targeting farmers as the next generation of Drone Pilots I’ve felt the urge to debunk some of the myths, hype and, quite frankly, lies about the average farmer walking into an electronics store and walking out with a turn key solution for their farm. Are drones useful in agriculture? Absolutely, but they require solutions that agriculture can actually use. Actionable insight is where growers don’t even need to think about the information. This is how drones are going to change the way we farm. Innovative farmers are simply too busy to fly drones.
“My quadcopter with an RGB camera is all I need to scout my fields with”. OK, true that getting a birds eye view is a great way to see your crops. Now try to scale that across a 1,000 acre operation, or to service all of your customers if you are an agronomist – and really what would you be providing them with other than a pretty picture, and or pointing out some best management practices – again providing some value, but it is often not measurable.
What a lot of people don’t understand (and this part isn’t advertised when you buy a drone) is that you then need to figure is what to do with all that data. Data is large and, if not captured properly, can be a nuisance to work with. Oh, and then there are the licensing fees. If you are a small business or even a farmer, how many acres do you need to fly to cover even the costs of the image processing license? Is that data available to you after your licences expires and if no, where are you going to store all that data?
Sprayer drones – we are excited about this technology, but is there a real opportunity here? Are there individuals that are going to be trained on both crop protection application as well as well as having the skills to oversee operations of a low flying (and likely heavy) UAV? Who is going to be excited about filling UAVs with little jugs of product? How many batteries will one have to bring to the field to cover 100 acres? Let’s think about the logistics of this for one second. Even if you can build a piece of hardware that can carry a substantial enough amount of product to cover a larger than small plot acreage, how are you going to be able to see a drone that is 3 feet above a crop and 1/2 a mile away? Good luck.
Managing and knowing what flights paths to choose, under certain conditions can be the difference between a successful day and one where you wished you didn’t leave the cab of your tractor. Everything from focal settings to overlaps to resolution matters and varies depending on the type of data that is being collected and the purpose of the outputs. Get it wrong and you get to do it all again, and perhaps by this point in time you’ve missed the opportunity to analyze a critical piece of information you could have done something about. Calibrated data is extremely important if you are making decisions based off of this information.
On the note of calibration, cameras/sensors cost money, especially if you are using the information to make agronomic decisions on the farm. Not only do they cost money, there is a very limited market for any second hand drone or sensor equipment in the market place. It is too risky to buy something that someone else has already used and potentially damaged. Most choose to buy new, so don’t plan on having a market to offload your slightly used equipment if things don’t work out.
A lot of hardware manufacturers claim that drones are going to save fertilizer expenses by X% and increase yields by Y%. Really? Show me how because that would be really cool. I have yet to see a report where the data collected by drone instantly gave an answer to this problem. Where is the supporting data to these claims? Where they can be useful is in making smarter decisions using prescriptive tools for variable application of nutrients or to more accurately target crop protection products (vs. the normal flat-rate practices), but that requires agronomy and years of experience and know-how. To simply tout a number without evidence to back it is false advertising. This is exactly the problem we want to address as we enter 2019 with our new colleagues at Veritas Farm Management.
Drones have a place in ag but in my (admittedly) biased opinion they are too complex, the regulations too restrictive, and the process from flight to solution is too cumbersome for the average grower or agronomist to want to tackle this technology head on. Cost effective solutions already exist (with proven ROIs) that could be used as a tool by growers wanting to explore the technology while still allowing them to focus on their operations’ main activities.