I remember over a decade ago seeing some of the first drones being used in the ag industry at my Kansas City Conference. They were much larger in size, the cameras were not nearly as good and they were a great deal more expensive. Today, UAVs, as they are called, have become recognized as the go-to for a more accurate and cost-effective replacement to the traditional satellites and manned aircrafts used to monitor agriculture. And study after study is now showing that drone imagery provides a higher rate of accuracy and resolution, even on cloudy days, meaning more accurate crop health assessments can be made throughout the year. It’s to no one’s surprise the agriculture drone market is now worth billions, an indication that the UAV industry continues to gain more and more market share. As you finish harvest and start planning for next year, I thought it would be a good time to share some insights on the latest in drones in case you find yourself in the market this winter.
Drones today seem to range in price from $1,500 to well over $25,000. Not only do they capture photographs, but they also use sensors to track factors like crop health, the presence of insects, and irrigation levels. Some ag pros even use drones to engage in precision farming, where the drones accurately and efficiently plant seeds and spray crops, saving time and money, as well as reducing waste. With the growing popularity of drones as a business tool on the farm, here are a few things to consider before purchasing, as well as those companies who are making a name for themselves in the space. (Source: allaboutequipment, futurefarming)
Fixed Wing or Rotors – Though rotor drones have greater maneuverability, lower cost, compact size, and are simpler to operate, their range is significantly less than a fixed-wing and are less stable in the wind and more likely to incur damage if they crash. Fixed-wing drones definitely require more effort to operate, less capable of mapping, and require a larger take-off/landing zone. Rotor drones are currently the most popular option on farms, but know what jobs you need done with the drone before jumping in and buying a model because it’s cheaper! There are great resources at the links below to help determine what model is best for your operational goals.
Sensor Compatibility and Payload Capacity – This is a biggy and should be one of your primary concerns when making your purchase. Various sensors can determine things like plant height, biodiversity, nitrogen levels, drought stress, and crop health, as well as predict plant count and forecast yields, so if you want those benefits, make sure the unit can incorporate visible, near-infrared, and/or thermal sensors. The ideal ag drones will allow for sensors with quality lenses, size, and resolution capabilities, and will be compatible with relevant programs like normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI). I should mention, most commercial UAVs can carry the typical sensors used for agricultural crop data collection, but for heavier sensors, such as hyperspectral or LiDAR, it is recommended to buy a bigger drone.
Cameras – You will be using the camera for a ton of projects ranging from monitoring fields to examining miles of fencerows or the tops of tall grain bins, meaning you need to consider a drone camera with a mechanical shutter, which accounts for changes in distance between the camera and its object while capturing images and can return clearer images and mapping.
Tech Upgrades – You will most likely treat your drone like you do your smartphone, meaning, drones make major leaps in innovation at lightning speed each year so you’ll want to keep up with the upgrades and new models that become available, which have hardware more capable of accomplishing tasks and software more compatible with current programs and tech-support.
Wireless Range – This is the diameter representing the furthest distance away from which the drone can fly from the operator, as limited by the wireless controller. This is typically much less than the physical range, but regardless, in the United States, it’s illegal to fly your drone beyond your visual line of sight (BVLOS) without proper authorization. This limitation is typically much less than the wireless range of standard commercial drones. Agriculture professionals with large farming or ranching should take note and follow all regulations while operating their drones.
Essentials – While you are learning to operate your new tool, expect that you’ll experience a crash or two as well as plan on the battery not lasting as long as you want. Knowing these facts means you’ll need to stock up on multiple batteries and spare parts that match the drone you choose so your operations are not unnecessarily interrupted. Also, don’t forget your insurance package, so make sure your model is eligible for drone insurance in case you happen to cause damage to persons or property, and strongly consider buying the manufacturers warranties for all relevant parts.
Popular Drones – You can learn more about the top line Fixedwing and Rotor drones as well as their accessories by clicking each link.