Surrounded by more than one thousand farmers at the 2014 Precision Aerial Agriculture Show (PAAS 2014) in Decatur, IL, we were astounded at the number of attendees and the level of interest they were displaying in integrating drones into their farming operations. With this many attendees, the event’s producers can almost certainly claim the prize for hosting the single largest commercial drone conference in the short history of the industry, indicative of a market that is rapidly gaining momentum. From our dozens of interactions with farmers, agronomists, ag retailers, and many others at the event, five big themes regarding the adoption of drones in agriculture come to the surface that will definitely help you refine your own outlook for this fascinating yet highly nuanced segment of the commercial drone market.
1: Seeing Crops From Above Is The Start of An Agricultural Revolution
The ability of drones to allow farmers to see their entire fields under cultivation puts us at the dawn of an agricultural revolution. Human beings began farming 12,000 years ago. When farms were small, it was possible for the farmer to see his entire crop by looking at the field from the edge, or even walking all the rows. But as farms have grown in size to cover thousands of acres, farmers today can only observe a fraction of their crops from adjacent roads. Walking the rows is both inefficient and provides an incomplete picture because farms today are simply too big to walk a meaningful percentage of the fields. The problem is compounded for tall crops like corn, where humans simply can’t see above the stalks as they mature. Satellite and manned aircraft imagery have been available for some time, but inherent shortcoming have limited their utility. As a result, for centuries farmers have had to operate like factory managers who can only see a small part of their production line, and have to hope that the machines are running smoothly and that the product will be high quality.
The ability of farmers to see every plant in the field, at any time, creates the first-ever opportunity to manage crops with the same precision that is used in world class, high volume factory production settings where every stage of the production process is carefully monitored and measured. Drones provide farmers with visibility into the agricultural production process that has never existed before and that is destined to transform large scale farming, driving yields up, input costs down and transforming agricultural work in the process. The significance of this development cannot be overstated.
2: Interest in Drones Among Farmers Is Widespread, Increasing
With over 2 million farms in the United States, the 1,000+ farmers at PAAS 2014 are a small sampling and represent the earliest adopters of drone technology. But every industry must start somewhere, and for 1,000 farmers to show up in rural Illinois to learn about a single technology (recall that most trade shows / expos cover many products and services) that is still in its infancy, and the use of which is shrouded in a murky regulatory quagmire, is a very good sign indeed. Discussions with these farmers about interest among their friends and neighbors (who were not at the show) almost always led to comments like “everyone’s trying to learn about it” or “a couple of my neighbors already have one” or “I told them I’d share what I learned when I get back.” That we are now in the heart of the first growing season since drone-hype was broken lose by Amazon in late December 2013 (several farmers talked about getting their first drones at or around Christmas last year) likely explains the huge surge in interest that has occurred as of late. This event showed that the gap between the hype and the reality may be smaller than some skeptics believe.