In 2019, precision agriculture was a $4.7 billion industry globally. While UAV technology does not represent all of this figure, it is undoubtedly a significant part of the industry. Analysts project that the precision agriculture industry will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.0% between 2020 and 2027.
For commercial drone pilots, this means there are a lot of opportunities in the space. According to DroneDeploy, the agricultural industry is the third largest when it comes to the adoption of UAV technology, just behind construction and mining. A recent study in 2018 showed the year over year (YoY) growth in industry adoption of UAV technology to be 172% in the agricultural space.
Some of the largest drone manufacturers have platforms explicitly designed for this task. DJI's Agras and Parrot's Bluegrass drones are two examples of products focused on agriculture. Drones such as these are designed to meet the specific and unique requirements of agricultural professionals.
Other companies have focused on the payload side of the product line with multispectral cameras and thermal imaging to aid in elevating farming to the next level. These optics can see in light spectrums the naked eye cannot and can reveal a great deal of information on plant health and soil nutrient levels among other things.
If you have not had a chance to consider lending your piloting skills to this career path, now may be the perfect time to do so.
What is Precision Agriculture?
Many individuals outside of the farming industry have probably never heard of precision agriculture. Most of us understand that agriculture means the growing of food, but we really do not understand what it takes to run a successful operation. So, what is precision agriculture, and why is it important?
According to PrecisionAg magazine (a leading publication in the industry) precision farming is "managing crop production inputs (seed, fertilizer, lime, pesticides, etc.) on a site-specific basis to increase profits, reduce waste and maintain environmental quality.
Technology is a crucial tool for increasing profits and decreasing waste. From drones to satellites to GPS guided equipment, farmers and ranchers use the data they collect to make more informed decisions.
The data collected can tell a farmer or rancher a wide range of helpful information. Identifying plant diseases, crop counts, livestock locations, nitrate levels, water deficiencies, and much more are all potential outputs precision agriculture offers farming professionals. Commercial drone pilots can provide all of these reports and more.
So why does it matter? The current population of the world is over 7.6 billion people. Our global agriculture production capacity is large enough to feed the current world population. While there are many reasons food is not distributed evenly across the world there is technically enough produced for everyone. When the world's population is over 9 billion (estimated to be around the year 2050), this will no longer be the case. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 overall food production will need to double in response to the ever-growing population.
Adding additional farmland is not the answer. Extra land would undoubtedly be sourced from sensitive ecosystems like rain forests, producing a short-term gain and long-term loss. Farming will need to become more efficient. The solution is precision agriculture.
What Drones Can Do
When it comes to drones in precision agriculture, not all drones are created equal. Some UAVs are designed for a particular purpose, such as spraying pesticides, while others can perform numerous tasks. Let us touch on a few of the more popular uses for drones in the field. We will start with some design specific applications.
Crop dusting and spraying are typically conducted using airplanes, helicopters, trucks, or by hand. These methods have been around for some time but carry with them some inefficiencies.
While aircraft can spray large areas, they must fly dangerously low and are expensive. Additionally, there is no way to make sure the spraying is uniform across all plants. Spraying by truck is slower than aircraft and by hand still slower managing to only cover about one to two acres in an hour.
In comparison, drones such as DJI's Agras T16 have an advertised operating hourly efficiency of 24.7 acres per hour. The Agras uses GPS and 3D modeling to ensure an even pesticide spray distribution across all plants.
Engineers and scientists are looking for drones to replace some of nature’s failing mechanisms. Research is currently underway in Japan to produce micro-drones capable of pollinating plants. As the world faces a rapidly decreasing bee population, drones may one day take over the role of nature's preferred pollinator.
Tailored made drones are not the only option for commercial drone pilots. Many precision agriculture operations can be carried out using off the shelf consumer models.
Like the construction industry, farmers can learn a lot from 3D models of their fields and accurate survey models of the area. Terrain features can highlight irrigation issues or special considerations required to operate in a given area, such as the requirement for erosion control measures.
Standard camera drones can survey an area for leaks in irrigation systems that crop growth will obscure from view. Even without specialized payloads on UAVs, many useful and actionable data sets can be acquired.
For ranchers, a simple quadcopter is extremely useful in monitoring fence lines and headcounts. The government and insurance agencies rely on accurate heard strengths for many of the subsidies and policies they issue related to agriculture.
When equipped with multispectral or thermal cameras, drones are even more useful. An example that illustrates this point well is soil analysis.
Farmers use fertilizers (nitrates) to ensure their crops are provided the primary nutrients they need to thrive. Too little or too much fertilizer can quickly destroy a field of otherwise healthy plants. Soil samples are one method used to test for nitrate levels in a given area.
Without using a UAV, farmers need to take physical samples of the soil, have them analyzed, and make decisions based on the results. In some cases, this process can take several days. This method is inefficient and more costly than UAV solutions.
A commercial drone pilot can use a multispectral camera and do the same thing in real-time. The farmer can have immediate information on the status of nitrate levels in their field.
As you can see from just this short list, there are many options for pilots in this space.
Advice for Getting into Precision Agriculture
If your interest has been piqued and you are now considering getting you and your drone into precision agriculture, below are a few tips to help you.
Agriculture is a people business. Although massive corporations run many operations, on the ground, things are still handled by people. If you want to be successful in this space, you will need to meet with your clients in person.
I once needed some thermal images of cows. There are several dairy farms within an hour of my location. I called a half dozen and never had anyone pick up the phone or respond to my messages. Most of the sites did not even have a website. To get real results, I needed to drive to the dairy and talk with the owner or manager in person.
Resist the urge to take out loans and spend vast sums of money on your equipment before getting started. You can operate reasonably well with a standard quadcopter carrying a decent (20MP) camera. While it is true that payloads such as multispectral cameras can cost several thousand dollars, you do not need it to begin working in precision agriculture.
Rather than starting with tons of debt, grow as your client base grows. Use a standard quadcopter, such as a DJI Phantom 4 Advanced, and wait until your business volume gets large enough to handle purchasing multispectral cameras before adding that service.
Training is important. While UAV technology can provide you with a lot of data, it is not all useful. Many of the specialized analysis farmers require will come from your interpretation of the data. Please do not assume the software and your drone will do it all for you.
Several companies will help train you online and in-person to understand the information and how to present it to your client. Take the time to educate yourself properly. Understand how the equipment works and expect your client to as this as well.
Finally, I have personally found your client will appreciate you having at least a basic understanding of the work they do. Do not show up to a cornfield and expect to get hired without understanding anything about growing corn.
Research the crop or livestock animals in advance. Understand the cycle with which they are grown or raised. Look into what are some of the challenges associated with their care. And most of all be a good listener. If you want to understand the operation better, ask clarifying questions. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find most people working in this space eager to share their wisdom.
Meet The Author
David Daly is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former United States Marine Corps officer. He is a consultant to the UAV industry and runs a commercial UAV company (Vigilante Drones) and a non-profit (Vigilante Cares) which uses drones to help military veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).