Insights on AgTech: How Drone Technology is Helping Improve the Farming Industry
By Daniel Chui
While advancements in farming technology can help the agriculture industry overcome a shortage of resources and produce more yields, the industry has been slow to adopt solutions like data sensors and drones. In this month’s ‘Insights On’ blog post, I asked two of our portfolio companies, Skyward and PrecisionHawk, their thoughts on how the AgTech industry will shape up.
What do you foresee as the most exciting impact technology will have on the agriculture industry?
Jonathan Evans, CEO at Skyward: In agriculture, as well as infrastructure, construction, mining, and gas, we’re seeing lots of exciting innovation with drones. My favorite part of leading Skyward is hearing how our customers are using drones to solve problems, and agriculture is certainly on the forefront of this. Drones have democratized access to aerial intelligence, even for very small farmers. Before drones entered the picture, real-time information on crop health and irrigation was only available to those with deep pockets who could afford expensive aerial imaging services — which in turn required airplanes, high-resolution UV cameras, and licensed pilots (Click to Tweet).
Now, drones allow everyone from small farms to major agribusinesses to access data that ensure smarter resource uses and higher crop yields.
Ernest Earon, CTO at PrecisionHawk: The impact of drone technology will allow growers to understand what they need to plant as well as how to prepare for it, plant it and nurture it in order to bring it to yield in the most efficient and effective way possible. That being said, I think we are going to see fewer farmers and growers relying on fickle weather patterns and wondering how the season is going to work out for them, or what their yield is going to be. Instead, they will be more informed and know what changes they can make, what inputs that need to apply and how all of this is going to tie in with their existing equipment. It will no longer be a question of just planting and letting it grow.
What is the biggest hurdle the industry will have to overcome as it pertains to technology?
JE: As with any new technology, there is a learning curve at the outset. With drones, there’s always the initial question of whether to develop an in-house program or outsource it. If your expertise is managing thousands of acres of sugar beets, becoming an expert drone pilot and data analyzer may not be how you want to spend your time. At Skyward, we help businesses parse these questions and manage the complexities of integrating drones into their businesses. Our management platform is built to help operators safely navigate the sky and run efficiently. We recently announced a partnership with PrecisionHawk and this integration will bring our platforms together to give operators who use PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster drone and DataMapper software a streamlined set of tools to manage their entire workflow. Their LATAS safety platform will include Skyward’s airspace intelligence so drone operators can fly safely, whether they’re flying over a field or mapping a city’s infrastructure.
EE: There will need to be an adjustment to deal with the huge amount of data that is coming in from AgTech systems.
Drones can collect terabytes of data in one day of flying without breaking a sweat, but as the volume and importance of this data goes up, it is going to be much more like other industries (think finance, software, cloud computing) and people will need to take more care than they used to (Click to Tweet).
For example, guaranteed up time is something that farmers are going to have to understand about their computers and not just their tractors.
These are all valid points that show the many promises and challenges technology will bring to the agriculture industry. As for the most exciting technology I see, it’s a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. For background, agriculture has transitioned over the years via hybridization in the 1960s and biotechnology in the 1990s in order to grow crops with specific traits that allow them to be more drought-/insect-/etc-resistant. These older techniques take years, if not decades, to achieve the desired result, whereas CRISPR can achieve the same results more rapidly with the potential to improve yield, nutrient composition, survivability and more.
If we’re looking for technology outside the biological variety, the notion of precision agriculture is the next best thing. Analogous to CRISPR-Cas9’s targeting capability, being able to target specific plants on a field to distribute water and nutrients is an exciting way to increase yield and decrease operating costs. It combines connected sensors/valves/tractors, data analytic, predictive models and potentially can reach a point where growing crops is almost fully automated. In the commodity crop space, like corn and wheat, we’re seeing a lot of this technology being trialed by growers. However, specialty crops like grapes and almonds have crop-specific requirements where automation is more difficult to achieve.
With the agriculture industry so ripe for change, we’ll be keeping a close eye on its developments in the months and years ahead.
How are farmers merging their tried-and-true methods with new drone technology? Share your thoughts in the comments.