How to get drones into fields, doing useful work

The value of the tech has often been oversold, despite potential for useful applications on farms

Fiona Lake setting off a drone.

For some ag-tech enthusiasts both, realizing the full potential of drones on farms and ranches requires a better overall understanding of the technology’s limitations in agricultural systems, as well as less marketing misdirection. 

The financial and time commitments required to accrue, process and act on drone-derived data has been a significant barrier to achieving the crop analysis goals as described by the marketing, according to Dale Cowan, senior agronomist and agronomy strategy manager with AGRIS and Wanstead Cooperatives.

Why it matters: The practicality of drones for the average producer has been both overhyped and misdirected. Focusing on simpler uses could generate a much-improved return on investment. 

“What happened was we bought them, and now they’re sitting on the shelf… It required expensive software, then you still need to do something with it. It requires verification. There wasn’t a big revelation.”

Fundamentally, Cowan says drones are just another tool and they need to be thought of as such, though the sensors that the drone carries are the real point of interest. Leveraging those sensors as a scouting extension — rather than attempting to analyze multiple maps and data sets — is where much of the practical opportunities lie. 

A decent camera, for example, can go a long way in revealing what’s happening in the field, such as stand gaps, nutrient deficiencies and insect damage. Cowan says many companies selling drones are making it simpler to run imagery analysis, but again emphasizes the importance of designing user-friendly interfaces in such programs. Imagery analysis of any kind tends to be more time consuming, after all, and farmers can’t necessarily make that investment. 

“What’s often missing is these things need to be descriptive, predictive and have a prescriptive aspect. We’re not there yet but I think that’s really the long-term thing,” he says. 

John Sulik, assistant professor of precision agriculture in the University of Guelph’s plant agriculture department, expresses similar sentiments. He also stresses drones are a sensor delivery platform, and the narratives used in the marketing of the technology commonly oversimplify the process. 

Generating “pretty maps” and “actionable insights” — a term common in drone marketing, and one Sulik much dislikes — does not support accurate on-farm decision making. Service providers risk misleading growers if they extrapolate field imagery too far, such as by incorrectly identifying a nutrient deficiency as a nitrogen problem instead of sulphur. 

A photo of fields in Tasmania taken with a drone. photo: Fiona Lake

Overall, Sulik says it’s crucial to remember field imagery is simply an index requiring both interpretation and verification. 

“You can use maps for doing targeted sampling and things, but it requires that next level of work… They might provide case studies to illustrate a point but it doesn’t lend too much,” he says, later adding the problem is by no means unique to drones. 

Focusing on simple uses

On the other side of the world, Australian growers and ranchers are running into similar problems. 

For Fiona Lake, a Queensland-based drone operator and photographer specializing in agriculture, the makers and marketers of drones have undersold simple uses for the technology. They have simultaneously oversold complex uses, as well as overly large designs, thus promoting drones for tasks to which they are ill-suited. 

Lake says checking water stocks on large-acreage ranches in the Australian bush, for example, has been identified by drone marketers as an ideal task for drones. In actuality, however, installing sensors is often more economical given the time and resources otherwise required to aerially monitor reservoirs spread across thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of acres. 

Drones are similarly poor tools for tracking cattle over such distances, though Lake says the technology is frequently marketed for the purpose. Good electronic ear tags, even on single animals within a family unit, are a better alternative. 

“I had one bloke tell me they saved $20,000 with the drone…They would have saved more with electronic tags,” says Lake. 

“I’ve met so many farmers who have wasted thousands of dollars on drone-related gear that just isn’t suitable or isn’t fully utilized.”

Conversely, small drones are ideal for farmers who want to “dip their toe” into drone use, without committing a large amount of time and money. 

Like Cowan, Lake believes such machines can effectively extend a grower’s scouting efforts, allowing them to identify problems earlier – such as whether feral pigs have bedded down in a cane field, or any other thing not visible from the field edge. Employing small drones can also help operators easily inspect farm infrastructure, such as windmills and signal towers, and know what to look for if they decide to engage the services of a specialist drone operator.

“For mapping with drones, there have been issues with poor mapping data quality, interoperability issues and a lack of use or usefulness…Plus, satellite data has been becoming cheaper to obtain, more frequent, and more detailed,” says Lake.

Uses in input application

As designs and autonomous capabilities improve, both Cowan and Lake say the potential for drones as input application tools is something to consider – to a degree.

Drones that can carry workable quantities of liquid are by nature significantly larger in size. Cowan says this fact means it’s likely a technology that will, by in large, that will be adopted by agriculture service providers or larger farm operations. Still, it’s a system that could prove valuable for growers trying to remedy localized problems, such as pockets of micronutrient deficiency, without damaging surrounding plants. 

“How can we pick up incremental gains in yield? We’re very intrigued by that concept,” he says. “What’s holding us back is nothing has been registered that can be applied by drone. It will likely just be micronutrients for now.”

The use of drones as sprayers is a rarity in Canada, and according to Lake, the same is true in Australia. But while planes and helicopters are still the practical approaches on large acreages, she says there is ample opportunity for spray drones on higher-value crops, and on smaller farms. This is particularly true for those in more densely populated areas, coastal regions, and other places where drift-related concerns are higher. 

Using what are comparatively large drones as input application tools take time, resources, as well as expertise. For this reason, Lake also says the technology likely makes more sense for service providers and farm businesses with deeper resource pools. 

In addition to simple field tasks in broadacre systems, Sulik similarly considers drones to be more useful in speciality crops. Whether they can be truly effective input application tools, however, is not a given. 

“How do we confirm the application is actually accurate? If they can be applied accurately there is opportunity,” he says. 

“If you don’t have to spray in that many places it would also save money and compaction too, but if it’s so few areas, is it even worth it?”

Marketers miss half the market

Fiona Lake, an Australian drone operator and photographer, believes ag-tech designers and sellers often miss the mark.

Women play a vital role in Australia’s agricultural landscape but they don’t seem to factor into the conventional farm conversation, whether in the tech sphere or generally.

In her experience, women tend to approach technology from a different direction, by asking questions that are not usually addressed by standard marketing practices.

“There’s no effort put into including women. Every aspect of ag-tech markets appeal to men, but in Australia, it’s often women who run the office and manage the finances. So often the man comes home from a field day excited about a piece of tech he wants to buy, and the woman is unconvinced it’s practical or financially wise.

“The missing ingredient regarding ag-tech uptake is women. Include women at every step of the process and the uptake of ag-tech will increase. For example, a couple of people have run women-only ag-tech events here and they’ve been very well received.”

Regardless of what marketers do, Lake also reiterates more agriculture-specific options are needed for drones to take off as a useful farm and ranch tool. As of this writing, she says Australia’s agricultural drone industry has been dominated by one brand that does not specialize in agricultural drones. This has been detrimental to wider adoption in a variety of ways, including a lack of local service and short battery life not adapted to on-farm needs. 

“We could really do with a specialized business servicing Australia with petrol-powered ag drones.”

About the author

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Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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