The Drone Boom: What you need to know

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Drones have been flying the skies of Japan since the 1980s thanks to Yamaha (yes, the motorcycle folks). Back then someone wanted a way to relieve the country’s aging farmers of some of the more backbreaking duties of tending rice paddies.

In response, Yamaha developed an unmanned, remote-controlled helicopter-style aircraft that could handle pesticide spraying and even seeding. Since the flying machines could do many backbreaking tasks in about one-tenth the time, drone use in Japanese agriculture literally, and figuratively, took off.

New FAA Rules

Here in America, too, farmers are intrigued by the time and money-saving opportunities that drones promise, and they’re especially interested in the aircraft’s ability to gather data they can use in precision farming practices.

This summer, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), opening the door for approved agricultural use.

The FAA rule 107 states that flights will be allowed in agriculture for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that weigh less than 55 pounds, fly up to 400 feet high and travel up to 100 miles per hour, provided the flights are within sight of an operator and not over people.

UAVs will need special lighting to fly at night and must stay at least 5 miles away from airports. Operators must be at least 16 and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.

Earlier this year, Patrick Lohman, VP of Partnerships for PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer and software supplier, told that 2016 would be “a watershed year for drones,” adding, “as a direct result of this growing demand as well as current federal regulations, we expect large growth in our drone servicing model and will continue building automated analysis applications to simplify the process for end users.”

Who’s Who in Manufacturing

PrecisionHawk  is just one of several major players likely to rise up in the ag drone market. Expect to hear names like HoneyComb; Delair-Tech, Sentera, Agribotix, and AGCO, among others, mentioned in connection with ag drones and drone software.

Speaking of Delair-Tech, that’s the company that acquired Belgium-based Gatewing Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) engineering and manufacturing business from navigation systems giant, Trimble (, this past October. Trimble expects to continue working in the drone sector, but from the software technology side, thanks to a strategic alliance with Delair.

“Working together, Delair-Tech and Microdrones will deliver industry-leading UAS platforms and Trimble will focus on core software technology for UAS that integrates positioning, remote sensing and photogrammetry,” Ron Bisio, vice president of Trimble’s Geospatial Division, explained in an October press release. “The end goal is to deliver a complete solution to transform work processes and efficiency for our customers.”

Thanks to the drone boom among tech and software companies, the FAA predicts that, by 2030, drones in the tens of thousands will be flying in U.S. skies.

The financial analysts are all taking turns estimating the value and scope of the ag drone industry, but everyone agrees the figures are sky high.

Price Waterhouse Cooper recently reported that the addressable market for agricultural drones is worth $32.4 billion; and research analyst, Lux, says agricultural drones will generate $350 million in revenues by 2025, led by uses in precision agriculture.

Taking those estimates into account, Goldman Sachs predicts that, in just five years, the agriculture sector will be the largest user of drones in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.

How Farmers Will Cash In

Farmers will be “cashing in” on the drone boom by way of significant production efficiencies, as drones can do everything from snapping photos to check miles of fence lines to monitoring livestock, allowing for more efficient application of nutrients and water and estimating crop yields.

“UAS technology is primarily being used by farmers for determining the vegetative health of a crop and for locating problem areas that can be targeted for further investigation,” explains Devon Liss, product manager for Trimble Agriculture. “A key benefit of the technology is that it allows farmers to collect data on their time schedule, and is not impacted by cloudy conditions.”

“What one plant needs on one side of the acre and what another plant on the opposite side needs might be completely different,” said Chris Mailey, vice president of the drone advocacy group, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in an interview with “Using robotics in agriculture allows you to get more detailed information and apply whatever nutrient or water you need in a much more precise manner.”

Liss says customers are enthused about the production efficiency opportunities that drones offer, and believes if they see proof of the value and the ROI, they will be willing to use UAS technology.

To that end, Liss says that Trimble will continue to look at how they can provide value to growers from the data that comes from drones.

“We are looking at how we can provide a workflow that allows a user to capture data, process that data, and then define an action based on that data in a reasonable time frame that drives profitability.”

Data will indeed be one of the key benefits drones can provide. Able to scan literally every corner of your fields, they can check out soil, track weather, estimate yields and raise red flags regarding drought conditions and pests. While the manufacturers have plenty of reason to be excited about the boom, producers will be the big winners when it comes to drones helping to maximize their income and ROI.

Prices for complete, ready-to-fly ag drone systems range from $1,500 to over $25,000, but the website for tech company, Precision Drone, says that, “at an average of $2 per acre for a walking visual inspection or an aerial survey to take an image of crop fields, the ROI on the purchase of an aerial helicopter drone can be met quickly.”

In addition, Precision Drone points out that, in most operations, the ROI for drones can be achieved in a crop season or less, leaving you owning a drone that reduces your operating costs and improves your crop yield by giving you the timely information you need for quick management intervention.

As you begin planning for 2017, it might just be time to look skyward for your next farm management investment.

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