Drones Are Reshaping The Future of Agriculture

Innovative drone technologies are here to help feed a growing population and combat climate change.

Ryan Kendall
Nov 2 · 5 min read

For our last technology in our agtech series, we will be taking a look at agricultural drones, which stand to upset many long-held practices for the sake of efficiency and crop yield. By 2050, it is estimated the global population will be over 9 billion, driving food demand higher by 70%. Simultaneously we will be facing the reality that there will be less arable land available for agricultural use to meet this demand. It is this conundrum that is driving expectations of significant innovation in agtech in the coming decades to optimize the processes that currently produce our food. For years, farmers have relied on manned aircraft to survey their land, monitor livestock & crops, and apply pesticides to crops. Hiring a trained agricultural pilot, however, costs between $60,000 and $100,000 per year. There has been a clear need for technology to reduce costs, especially given the future demand of food. It was in 2006 that the first non-military drones were used for commercial use, leading us into a decade of drone innovation and scaled commercialization. With this new era of aircraft technology already upon us, drone usage has made its way to modern-day agriculture practices. The market for agricultural drones will grow well into the next few decades and become a hotbed of innovation and investment.

Agricultural drone usage can be broken down into several categories. One of the most popular uses for agricultural drones is farmland surveying. This surveying includes crop assessment, disease monitoring, and irrigation & water watching. Sensor and GPS tools within drones are able to not only capture high-resolution images of farmland but also provide data to build extensive geographic information system (GIS) models & normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI calculations can directly describe plant health). Farmers are then able to make proper nutritional deficiency evaluations, irrigation improvements, more informed fertilizer applications, and pest assessments up to 10 times a day before a human eye can do the same. For cattle farmers and ranchers, drones are able to provide them with detailed images to monitor livestock count, weather damage, irrigation issues, and vegetation health. Also, with the introduction of passive Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to track cattle, farmers in the past have had to be within a couple of meters of the cattle to scan the tag and acquire information about the cattle. Drones now provide the ability for this same process to take place miles away.

On top of this surveying use, agricultural drones are being used for pesticide and fertilizer applications. With the combination of radar, remote sensing (RS), and light detection and ranging (LiDAR), drones are able to spray crops five times faster than the use of regular machinery. The ability to also measure crop density and adjust altitude & flight paths allows for precision agriculture that not only reduces time and cost for farmers, but has the potential to save lives. The WHO estimates 3 million pesticide poisonings and 220,000 deaths per year due to improper pesticide application, and agricultural drones could very well help mitigate this issue.

Given the extensive uses of drones’ in agriculture, the agricultural drone market was valued at $1.2 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $5.7 billion by 2025. That is a staggering 35.9% CAGR through the forecasting period. One of the largest drivers of this growth is the aforementioned population increase expected through the rest of the century, particularly in the Asian-Pacific region. We are also seeing rising concerns of climate change effects on global agriculture, and drones could directly address these concerns through precision agriculture. Also, there has been vast development of the sub-technologies that are utilized by agricultural drones. Innovation in crawler camera systems, LiDAR, GIS technology, remote sensing, and even GPS technology. The development and scaling of these smart agriculture technologies have directly allowed farmers to reduce the cost of maintaining their farms. A typical manned aircraft usually costs around $1,000 an hour for agricultural usage, but a typical agricultural drone can be bought totally for $1,000. Subsidiary technological innovation and support from governmental organizations like the FAA have allowed agricultural drones to become cheaper, widely available, and more impactful than ever.

With the groundwork having been set for agricultural drones to become a new norm many companies have begun investing significant capital to drive innovation in this technology. Some of the largest innovators in the field are companies like PrecisionHawk (US), Yamaha Motor Corp. (Japan), 3DR (US), and OPTiM Corp. (Japan). None, however, are as large as China’s DJI. The company has the largest portfolio of agricultural drone products in the world and has quickly become one of the largest manufacturers of civilian drones. In August, they announced that their Agras T30 crop spraying drone is fully available internationally. The drone hoists a 30-liter spray tank, an innovative spraying system, and state-of-the-art carbon fiber structure that has established itself as the premier agriculture drone in the industry. We are also seeing plenty of new companies burst onto the scene with innovative products. Agriculture powerhouse HTS Ag most recently announced a partnership with Texas-based startup, Hylio, which specializes in spray drones. Both companies have promised a “best in class” product that will revolutionize the agriculture industry.

With all of this innovation, significant investment is flooding into the industry, both in private and public sectors. A lot of this investment has come through the rise of venture funding in the field. In April, Chinese drone manufacturer, EAVison, announced a $30 million round of Series C funding, specifically for its agriculture drone program. This news comes after companies XAG, Tevel Aerobotics Technologies, and Hummingbird Technologies announced their own rounds of funding which were $228 million, $32million, and $25 million, respectively. Also this past April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) invested $21.7 million in precision agriculture technology like agriculture drones. There has been a serious level of capital injection into this industry which will only facilitate more innovation and growth within the market.

While it may be a more niche technology for now, the agriculture drone market should not fool you; this field is a high-growth industry with large-scale innovation and investment currently taking place. Rises in demand for precision agriculture are driving a revolution in the way the agriculture industry as a whole operates. With extensive use cases and more being created every year, agriculture drones are a unique technology that may have the ability to directly sustain our food supply through the rest of the century.