Drones in Agriculture, Then and Now: The Evolution of UAV Technology on the Farm and in the Field

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Here at DroneDeploy, we usually consider ourselves future-focused, but today we're dialing the clock back a few years. It's 2013. "Selfie" is the newest word in the Oxford dictionary, the pope just signed onto Twitter for the first time, and DroneDeploy is a newly launched startup. For the most part, the general public's knowledge of commercial drones begins and ends with Jeff Bezos' dreams of UAV-powered package delivery. As for drones in agriculture? At this point, most farmers would say it's a nonstarter. But all of that is about to change.

Fast forward to August 2017. Today, agriculture is one of the fastest growing markets for the commercial drone industry. Thousands of DroneDeploy users create ag-focused drone maps and models on a regular basis. In just under five years, drones have gone from a toy for gadget junkies to an essential tool in any ag professional's toolbox. So how did we get here? And what can we expect from drones in agriculture over the next five years?

The Early Days of Drones in Agriculture: High Price Tags and Low Usability

The early challenges of drones in agriculture can be boiled down to two things: cost and usability. For starters, five years ago a fixed wing drone with a high-definition camera, capable of flying mid-range distances, cost between $10–30K. For all but a handful of major agronomist companies and co-ops, this was a tough price tag to stomach, especially for a technology that had done little to prove its worth to the average farmer.

But aside from the obvious cost barriers, why hadn't drone technology proven its worth to the agriculture industry back in 2013? For starters, user-friendly mapping solutions like DroneDeploy weren't yet on the market, so a farmer had to possess a good deal of technical knowledge just to stitch a map of his fields. All of this had to be done locally — requiring a powerful desktop PC — and it took upwards of two days just to process a map. When you're talking about a disease that's killing your crops, two days might as well be a lifetime.

For those persistent few who pushed through to create drone maps of their fields, the resulting data was not as useful as people initially hoped it would be — growers had been promised big things. To be fair, this wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the commercial drone industry. But for all intents and purposes, drone technology was in its infancy.

Five years ago, high-resolution sensors like Tetracam were already available and capable of capturing quality data. But the industry was just beginning to figure out what to do with all of that data. In short, the UAV industry needed to figure out how to take a 160-acre map of a cornfield and make it useful for a farmer standing at the edge of that field and worried about the upcoming harvest.

Drones Today: Cloud Computing and Advanced Analytics Bring Real Value to Growers and Agronomists

Over the past several years, advances in technology have made the price of drone hardware far more accessible to the average agriculture professional. Quadcopters are easier to produce, motors are more efficient, and battery life has increased. With DJI leading the way, a farmer can purchase a mapping drone for between one and three-thousand dollars, lowering the barrier of entry and making the risk of investing in drones far more palatable.

Once a farmer does take the plunge and purchase a drone, the mapping process is far more user-friendly than it once was. For starters, household internet speeds have increased considerably, making it possible for much of the world's computing to move to the cloud. Drone mapping is no exception. Now, instead of gathering data, returning to a desktop computer and going through the laborious process of stitching a map locally, a farmer can take his tablet or smartphone, fly 160-acres on just one battery, and upload the imagery to the cloud for processing once it lands. Mapping software companies like DroneDeploy do the rest and a farmer doesn't need to have any technical knowledge about photogrammetry to make this happen.

Looking Ahead: The Future of UAV Technology in Agriculture

There is a reason we've made DroneDeploy easy to use, affordable, and compatible on all devices. We want users to be able to collect the most data possible. As we look forward toward the next five years, it's time to flex the computer vision and machine learning muscle — and put that data to the best use.

As an industry, we're working hard to better understand remote sensing and how we can fully integrate machine learning analytics with drone data to deliver insights that are meaningful to farmers. We will undoubtedly see advancements in sensor technology and new information about weed signatures that allow us to better analyze crops and differentiate specific types of weeds and pests.

Looking ahead a little further, we expect Internet of Things (IoT) technology to begin to make itself into the world of UAVs. In the next five to ten years, we hope drone technology can identify specific types of crop stress, complete financial calculations about the feasibility of treatment, and then send that data directly to equipment in the field.

Sound like science fiction? We don't think so. After all, CNH recently released a fully-autonomous tractorthat allows farmers to be far more efficient, only involved directly in the deployment of the machine. In the future, we hope human labor will be taken out of the equation for drones in much the same way. Autonomous, timed deployments and beyond line-of-sight flights are all within the realm of possibility. It may sound like an overstatement now, but we can imagine a day when owning a drone on the farm is no more cutting edge than owning a tractor or a combine. If drone data helps growers and agronomists gain better insights, make more informed decisions, and reduce losses in the field — the real question is: why not?

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Allison V

Bellingham, Washington, United States •

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