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The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture

Over the past few years, the press has emphasized how much commercial drones will be used to improve farming. The assumption is that drones provide more accurate data for use in variable rate technology (VRT) so farmers who use drones will experience increased yields. But truth be told very little has been written about the measurable benefits and it’s yet to be proven just how effective UAS will be in helping farmers increase yields. With that in mind we just released The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, a free research study that reviews those benefits and challenges.

The report is the first in series of studies sponsored by BZ Media that looks objectively at each major market for drones and drone technology. In this paper, we look at how drones have been used as remote sensing devices in agriculture thus far, review competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discuss the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself, outline the lessons learned, and discuss what’s next for drones in agriculture. Here is an excerpt:

“For the most part, recent technology advancements in small UAS equipped with good sensors support the farmer’s and/or researcher’s ability to locate a precise position in a field, observe it, and create maps of as many variables as can be measured — but only on a small scale. That’s because under current FAA rules, all observation and measurement would have to be done by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. The problem is that fields and farms are big– bigger than VLOS. According to this report, there are approximately 2.1 million farms in America. The average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 percent of farms. That’s 1.85 million farms that could benefit immediately from VLOS operations. But large family farms (averaging 1,421 acres) and very large family farms (averaging 2,086 acres) make up 36 percent of the total farm acres in the U.S., so most of that would require beyond VLOS operations.

Sure, operators could conduct many operations in a day by moving section to section to section and stitching together larger maps for large or very large acre farms, but this is costly – both in terms of manpower and time. Even if it was cheaper, the market potential for drones in precision agriculture still needs more vetting. Despite the ROI studies like this one by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Measure, it’s not yet 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.”

The paper goes on to analyze six use cases for drones in agriculture in great detail – including using drones for crop vigor assessment and the use of prescription maps. You can find out more about the report and download for free it here.

Image credit: Colby AgTech

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