I recently attended and spoke at a conference focused on agriculture safety. It was a mix between farmers, insurance adjustors, administrators, and land owners. I was encouraged by the amount of interest in drones that the audience demonstrated and it is clear that the agriculture community is looking at the technology with a very serious commitment. Agriculture has always been touted as a natural fit for drones. This may stem from the early commercial adoption of unmanned systems in Asia. In Korea and Japan, the Yamaha R-Max has been used successfully for many years with a reported over 2,500 systems sold. What is clear was that we remain very early in the evolution of the agriculture market and unmanned systems.
There are many factors that farmers must deal with and one component to all of farming is that each crop and community is different. There are many needs in the agriculture field and the drone that is successful will identify a way to fill a need or unique capability within the incredibly diverse market. Each crop and variety may have a particular need and each community has different networks and relationships they trust. While it is easy to understand the potential value that drones may bring to agriculture one has to step back and understand that more than any other market agriculture is run by tight communities based upon years of passed down knowledge and paternal relationships. To make a difference in this community one must understand how farmers think and what is considered valuable to them. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Modesto, California in the heart of the Central Valley. I worked for farmers driving a forklift at a peach receiving station in high school and college. It is how I earned enough money to pay for my pilot’s license. To be successful in agriculture one has to first listen to what the community is looking for. Farmers get approached all the time by someone selling the next magic bean and they have run a very tight ship.
I spent an entire day listening to what was being discussed and shared. I learned of several new applications that drones are being used for that I was not aware of. I learned that the concept of automation and using technology is not a fear in the community rather it is scene on many levels as a potential savior as farmers have to deal with tightening regulations and changing markets. I learned that farmers are excited by what this means to their futures and how they will run the farm of the future. I also learned that the requirements placed on a drone will be very challenging. The specificity of and dynamic range that sensors will have to achieve is daunting. For example, grapes are grown throughout California and each region has its own climate and its own unique set of data points for crop analysis. That means that a manufacturer of the drone or of the sensors will have to build libraries to support these conclusions specific to each localized climate and variety. There were other applications that may fit the traditional drone model, for example one farmer was using his drone to map the potential point sources for contaminants on his crops. Every morning before they harvest they use a fixed wing drone to fly the border of their fields to document that there were no contamination sources which can hurt their certifications and crop value.
Clearly there is a future for drones in agriculture and we can see how they have been successfully applied in Korea and Japan. Every day there are strides being made with the aggregation of data, advances in sensors, and the performance of the technology. Farmers are incredibly smart people who are excited by this future and where technology brings value to their enterprises. Farmers are driven by an understanding of the need for safety and compliance. They are delivering a product in a world where there are real consequences when mistakes are made and the drone is a tool that has to bring value to this food chain.
– by Brian Whiteside (Drone Complier COO)