Opinion: The Agricultural Drone War Is Over, And They Lost
If you are late to the aerial imagery party and think that agricultural drones are the vehicle that are the be all, end all answer to your imagery needs, you are going to lose and lose big at that. But before we get into that, let’s take a trip back down memory lane to the spring of 2014. It seemed like everyone and their brother was taking to the skies for the first time with their brand new drone. It was the hot trend and dozens of companies emerged seemingly overnight that built and sold drones.
In fact, I remember attending a drone field day in Decatur, IL, that hosted dozens of companies and their drones with hundreds of other ag professionals like myself in attendance. The drones demonstrated that day ranged from just barely a step up from being homemade, all the way up to military grade. Some systems seemed very sophisticated and others less so. It was a very interesting event and it seemed like the future of drones was very bright.
Fast forward three years and only two or three of those companies from that event are still players in the drone business. The drone companies today seem to do a pretty fantastic job of delivering aerial imagery via a drone and use equally fantastic software to stich it all together into something actionable by the grower. However, despite all of this great technology, there are some pretty big limitations in converting this great technology into a successful commercial agricultural drone program.
First, let’s recognize that the important information collected by aerial imagery is NDVI imagery. This is important so we can detect issues out in the field before they are visible with the naked eye so we can in turn correct the issues out in the field while minimizing the yield loss, and ideally maximizing our profit potential. With this in mind, the ultimate goal of collecting NDVI imagery is to collect it at the correct time and turn it around into data that is actionable out in the field as quickly as possible.
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With drones, there are some severe limitations in achieving these goals at a level that can be scaled into a successful business model, so let’s explore some of these issues:
There are now laws in place that require you to have a license if you are going to fly a drone for commercial use. While it is not necessarily difficult to obtain your license, there are several steps to take and a few hoops to jump through to get licensed from the FAA. This licensing is a really good thing since it educates drone operators on important issues such as airspace, flying within line of sight (unless you have obtained a waiver), and other topics that ensure safe flying habits. However, the drawback of this is that if you have zero aeronautical knowledge going into the test your only chance of passing is by taking a two-day prep course. While this isn’t that big of an issue and there are some terrific courses out there, it is still two days of your time.
Logistics and Time
There are also only so many flyable days per year, particularly during the window where the data we collect can be turned around into actionable data. I live in Illinois and I always seem to be pushing weather conditions in one way or another, whether it is the high winds that are common in Illinois or patchy cloud cover that casts uneven lighting over fields. These issues can be amplified when you consider the time it takes to travel to each field, the distance between fields, the amount of acres that need to be covered to turn a profit, and the fact that we all have responsibilities far beyond operating a drone in the field. With these in mind, the window to collect data via a drone is limited. When you consider where the grain markets are at today, it becomes a real challenge to provide this service at an affordable cost to the grower.
Another key point is that drones tend to crash. Some models and/or operators tend to have crashes more than others, but if you’re reading this and you’ve flown a drone, you know darn well that you’ve crashed it at one point or another whether you will admit it or not. I myself have spent many days walking through pollinating cornfields on hot summer days looking for my downed drones. The word miserable doesn’t even begin to describe those experiences.
At this point in time I can safely say that the fad of “Hey everybody, look at this cool tech I have! I’m not really sure if I’m adding that much value to the actual bottom line, but it’s just so COOL!” has run its course. Now that this novelty has worn off, we have to get down to brass tacks by collecting and analyzing actionable NDVI imagery in a high volume, low cost way to the grower. With this in mind, collecting NDVI imagery with a drone is the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight, so let’s talk about the other vehicles for collecting this imagery.
Airplanes have a few distinct advantages over drones. First, they can legally operate over 400 feet meaning that they typically don’t have to make multiple swaths over a field to collect an image. Second, the flight time on an airplane is much longer than most drones out there today. With those two factors alone, airplanes can simply cover exponentially more acres in a day than a drone can. The drawback is that you do need a plane and a pilot, but there are many companies that can provide both of these.
Satellites are useful but have many limitations as well. If it’s cloudy every 10-16 days when the satellite gets in position in its orbit to take pictures of your field, then you are out of luck for that round. The imagery isn’t as high of quality as the imagery collected from drones or airplanes, but it can be useful for general observations on a whole field level. Exciting things are happening in the aerospace industry right now and new companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are driving the price of launching rockets into space down significantly by creating rockets that can be reused multiple times. This ultimately means that a larger number of newer satellites could be put into orbit in a shorter period of time that could provide more opportunities to take higher quality imagery. While this could take time to become a reality, it does make the future of satellite imagery seem promising.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound like a complete drone hater; I just think they have their place as a tool to take RGB photographs of issues that we can’t necessarily see from the ground and need to look at right away. But to get real, actionable NDVI data during the decision making window at an economical cost, drones are not an ideal vehicle at this point in time. I can see a very valid argument for using drones in high dollar specialty crops; but with the depressed grain markets of today, it is really difficult to scale a drone program in the Midwest.
Maybe one day drones will make a comeback. I mean the technology is certainly there to do some interesting things, but the legislative piece will make that very difficult for the foreseeable future. For now, we need to be realistic about how we collect NDVI aerial imagery in a time and cost effective manner, and drones just aren’t the answer.
As for me, I’m taking a systems approach this year by incorporating drones, planes, and satellites into my aerial imagery program by utilizing the strengths of each platform. With that being said, I will be flying a drone this year but it will be a very small part of my overall aerial imagery program and it will be used solely for RGB images.