4 Common Questions About Drones in Agriculture

With industries like real estate becoming overly saturated, it is critical for the drone pilot to step out his comfort zone and consider less explored options. One such option is using drones in agriculture. However, in order to successfully cater to a farmer’s requirement, a drone pilot needs to use the right equipment and follow the correct workflow.

In this blog post, I answer some common questions that drone pilots ask us before offering their drone services to the agriculture industry.

Is it profitable to start a drone business in agriculture?

Many trade pundits predict that drone applications in agriculture will grow to a multi-billion industry. While this may be true, in order to start and run a profitable drone business in agriculture, pilots need a sound business strategy.

Broadly speaking, drone applications in agriculture are spread over 4 segments:

1. Crop Scanning
2. Livestock monitoring
3. Drone Mapping
4. Crop Spraying

In 2015, The Department of Agriculture at Purdue University conducted this extensive research exploring how precision technologies are being used in agriculture. 260 crop dealers across the United States were quizzed in order to collect data for this study. And there were some interesting results:

1. 16% of dealers surveyed offered UAV’s to their customers
2. Nearly three quarters of applicants surveyed made a profit from Variable Rate Technology
3. “Low Farm Income” was the biggest barrier to adoption of precision technology

Note that these numbers are from a 2015 survey. As we are entering 2019, drone penetration has certainly risen a lot.

But how do you pitch your drone services to the farmer so as to overcome the barrier of “Low Farm Income”? In order to overcome this barrier, we recommend pricing your drone services by the hectare — and highlighting savings per hectare.

Using drones over crop spraying is definitely a better alternative to airplanes. Airplanes that are used for crop-dusting end up wasting 70% of material. Whereas, using a drone or a helicopter ensures optimal use of resources (the prop wash ensures the material is sprayed over the crops instead of getting blown away in all directions)

The fact that “Variable Rate Technology” is one of the most popular uses of precision technology is certainly heartening.” Variable Rate” is nothing but rationalizing the use of resources such as pesticides by spraying these in problematic areas only. But, before we go too far ahead, let us discuss the workflow for using drones in agriculture.

Do I need a multispectral camera for agriculture?

Yes, you do. We caution farmers against getting swayed by marketing gimmicks and false claims. Using a multispectral camera mounted on a drone is the only way to foresee potential problems BEFORE the human eye can see them. So, you can take prompt action and spray these problematic areas ONLY.

Micasense Rededge is a multispectral sensor that comes with 5 lenses. Each lens is designed to “read” light in a different spectrum. Every time a drone takes a photo, the sunshine sensor records the amount of light at that particular moment.

Also, remember — You cannot identify WHAT the problem is but you can certainly identify WHERE the problem is. So, for instance, using drones you cannot really tell if your crops have a nitrogen or phosphorous deficiency. Nor can you identify if sections of the field are dehydrated.

Using a drone that is equipped with a multispectral sensor, drone pilots can create a reflectance map which shows where the field is doing well — and areas where the field is not doing so well. In a reflectance map, no color balancing is applied, and each pixel indicates the reflectance of the object. If you can lay the reflectance map on the top of a RGB orthomosaic, you can certainly provide greater value to farmers.

Once you provide this data to farmers, an agronomist will “read” these maps and make suggestions to farmer regarding the allocation of resources.

Should I use a desktop for agricultural drone mapping?

This is another common question that drone pilots ask us. The (supposed) need for a powerful computer detracts many farmers from adopting desktop based mapping applications — and they adopt cloud solutions instead. Thankfully, technological advancements has now made it possible to process data efficiently on commercial, middle of the rung computers too. For instance, using Pix4Dfields, you can make a 3-axis orthomosaic in just 3–5 minutes.

Another disadvantage of opting for a cloud based solution is that data processing is not possible without human intervention — and is hence prone to error.

Do I need a waiver to fly an agricultural drone?

This document describes the certification process for agricultural aircraft operators under Part 137 This is how FAA defines “Agricultural Aircraft Operators”.

So, this certification waives certain Part 107 requirements by allowing drone pilots to drop off substances intended to prolong plant life by staving off insects, rodents and weeds. The evaluation process for Part 137 can be divided into 5 phases:

The entire application process for Part 137 is well depicted through this flow chart:

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