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Drones for Agriculture: Know and Avoid the Pitfalls


Share | 07/20/2016

Drones in Agriculture: Know and Avoid the Pitfalls

JULY 20th, 2016

Emerging technologies flood every market available, and precision agriculture is no exception. New developments in robotics, analytics, and equipment continually promise to increase yield, lower fuel costs, and promote sustainability. Yet most of these developments aren’t resilient enough to be around for more than a couple of growing seasons. Farmers have seen hundreds of new ideas come and go without being worth much, so it shouldn’t be surprising that most hype around the “latest and greatest” is met with considerable skepticism.

A management zone prescription map derived from data acquired by drones

 A management zone prescription map derived from data acquired by drones.

Drones have demonstrated value in agriculture time and time again. However, many have found it difficult to implement unmanned systems into their workflow. Drones are undeserving of the skepticism many growers have reserved for emerging technologies. Agri-businesses looking to leverage drones can either work with a service provider like Measure or build a program in-house. In either case, they should keep the following in mind:


Commercial-grade agriculture drones start in the $10k range, not including the multispectral and thermal sensors needed to create complex analytics such as NDVI. Other hidden costs to operating a drone include maintenance, insurance, and hiring and training pilots. Once the images are captured, they need to be processed and analyzed by someone with a considerable level of expertise. Measure partners with industry leaders in the software analytics space and has a dedicated team of analysts processing our customer’s data, which allows us to streamline the workflow as cost-effectively as possible. Start-up data costs will be larger for an in-house team without partners in the space, experience, or the license.

Photo credit: Robert Blair

 Photo credit: Robert Blair

Time is money

Drones need a babysitter, both from a legal standpoint and from a safety standpoint: someone needs to be on hand if something goes wrong. Even if a grower sets up a drone to fly on autopilot, they can’t walk away from it and take care of other chores. There is no multi-tasking when it comes to flying a drone—which means a farmer who tries to fly his own aircraft is losing a day of work and a considerable amount of revenue.

Compounding this problem is that manufacturer estimates of endurance come from perfect conditions. The drone mapping software program might say that the flight time to fly 100 acres is approximately 25 minutes, but in tough conditions it can take over four times as long. And on top of that is the data processing time: any device short of a supercomputer is guaranteed to take at least a few hours to get through thousands of photos.


Photo credit: Robert Blair

 Photo credit: Robert Blair

Having the right equipment and personnel doesn’t mean you are cleared to fly. Under Part 107, any pilot flying for commercial purposes must have a UAV Pilot Certification and must adhere to a strict set of guidelines. Pilots must ensure that flight zones are not in restricted airspace, they are not flying directly overhead of non-participants, and that they can see their aircraft at all times. Those who flaunt the law risk the FAA’s wrath and fines into the millions. If a grower is unfortunate enough to own land within restricted airspace, they can seek special dispensation to fly—but navigating the regulatory landscape requires a deft touch and will inevitably result in more than a few headaches.

Many companies that pulled the trigger early to jump-start a UAV program have been burned by the unexpected logistical nightmare of the new and evolving technology. However, that doesn’t mean growers should be dissuaded from using drones. The ROI potential is significant and millions of dollars are being invested in drone manufacturing & software that is enabling service providers to consistently deliver standard, high-quality data. As the industry continues to advance, farms and agri-businesses will have to seriously weigh the benefits of building an in-house program or outsourcing to a service provider so they can focus on the true core of their business.

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