Chances are, you’ve got a drone — maybe it’s a Parrot AR you picked up for $100 at Walmart. Possibly it’s a $1,500 DJI Phantom 3 that takes great aerial photos. Or maybe you’re one of the few western Canadian producers who’s purchased an NDVI-capable drone that takes orthomosaic images that can be layered in with variable-rate data to help you make spraying decisions.
If you’ve got a drone, you probably already know whether it’s worth your time.
And chances are, it isn’t — at least not yet.
“I sell drones, but I haven’t sold a grower a mapping drone yet because in most cases it doesn’t make sense,” says Greg Adelman, an independent agronomy consultant for 70,000 acres northwest of Regina. “They spend so much time in the sprayer and on the farm already, do they really want to bite off this job too?
“Drones are probably most useful just for small applications — there’s not enough time in the day to do the work we need with drone technology,” he says.
The industry has seen plenty of hype about drones over the last several months — Fortune magazine even called 2015 “the year agricultural drones take off.” It makes sense: as western Canadian operations increase in size, scouting becomes almost impossible without eyes in the sky.
Drone technology is sold in packages, and the most advanced ones have software that can layer drone data with other precision agriculture data, delivering prescription maps to producers. But has drone technology advanced to the point where growers are actually addressing crop-health problems before it’s too late?
Agronomists say it hasn’t — not because producers don’t know how to use the technology, but because they don’t have enough hours in the day.
It takes time
“Time is the biggest issue,” says Warren Genik, director of technology for Green Aero Tech/AgSky Technologies Inc., a Manitoba-based data consultant that offers custom unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imaging and processing. “The reality is that it only takes us about 20 to 30 minutes to image a quarter section, but then it takes three or four more hours of processing before you get a report. So that’s where the time involvement comes in.”
Genik’s company uses near-infrared and other cameras to offer UAV surveying and crop-monitoring services, plus elevation mapping to spot drainage issues.
AgSky’s advanced technologies mean that under the right conditions, the company can fly a farmer’s entire operation and process the data overnight, delivering a next-day report in time for farmers to make spraying and other crop-health decisions.
“We’ve been able to do some very significant savings for farmers based on that crop-health imaging, but we think outside the box with it,” says Genik. “It’s publicized that drones are about crop health, but there are a huge number of other potential uses for drones in agriculture that people haven’t really explored. That’s why we’ve focused on drainage issues, where we can make a difference for a lot of farmers.”
While farmers probably don’t have time to do much with drones, they can be a powerful addition to agronomists’ surveying tool box.
More than toys
According to Wade Barnes, president of the variable rate and precision farming consultancy Farmers Edge, drone technology has not yet advanced to the point where it makes sense for mainstream agriculture.
“We see drones as a huge opportunity, but farms are significantly large, there are lots of moving parts, and we see adding a drone as your primary source of data collection as a recipe for disaster,” he says.
Farmers Edge has made strategic investments in drone technology — the company is currently engaged in a research and development project with DJI, the largest drone manufacturer in the world. Barnes says Farmers Edge has a unique vision for how drones will play into ag operations in the future.
“Our view of where it’s going doesn’t match where a lot of other people see it going,” he says. “People fall in love with drones because they’re cool and interesting, but if you ask a farmer who’s bought a drone, I bet 95 per cent will say they really don’t use it in the way they thought they’d use it. They just don’t have the time. We see drones as a tool that will fit into an agronomy program to make things more efficient in the future.”
Barnes says many people point to a shortage of farm labour as a major issue in the next 15 to 20 years, but a shortage of professional farm agronomists is an equal concern. With fewer and fewer people in the field, agronomists’ skills — and new technology — will have to evolve with the times.
And drone technology will be key in helping agronomists cover that ground on farmers’ behalf.
“Today, a big farm is 20,000 acres versus 2,000 when I got out of school,” says Barnes. “The agronomy model will have to change. To have a drone get out there and get that information and send it to the agronomist — that will be so important.”
Sterling Cripps, a commercial pilot and president of Canadian Unmanned, a company that specializes in small drone training for commercial and civil operators, says that many farmers have participated in his training program.
“They’re finding that the data is very worthwhile — it’s easy to collect and process once they have the knowledge to do that,” he says. “But they’re having problems with scope and the size of the land they need to cover — they’re doing small parcels of land at a time. That seems to be the biggest problem — you can only take small bites out of the apple.”
Currently, drone use is regulated to “line of sight,” which means that for small drones, only repeated flights can gather data for a large operation.
“It’s a safety concern for people on the ground and general aviation that’s in the air. The problem is that when you’re flying a drone it can’t sense and avoid another aircraft in the area. Five or 10 kilometres away, you can’t see your drone,” Cripps says.
He calls sense-and-avoid capability “the biggest nut to crack” in the industry. Until drones can sense and avoid other aircraft, drone users are restricted to line of sight.
For now, farmers will have to decide whether drones are worth their time.
“What I always say is that it’s not about the drone, it’s about the data,” says Genik. “It can be flashy equipment flying in the field but if it’s not telling you something you need to know, what good is it?”