Unmanned aerial vehicles, largely known as drones, have been used extensively by the United States military. In 2017, for example, the country’s military market share with UAVs was more than 60 percent of the world market, and four of the top five military UAV manufacturers are American, including names such as General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, followed by the Chinese company China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
The civilian market however, is relatively new, and is completely dominated by Chinese companies, with drone manufacturer DJI alone holding 75 percent of the worldwide market share for consumer drones.
One of the uses for drones is in mapping and localization, the focus for many, in agriculture for example, to help improve crop production and monitor crop growth.
Use of UAVs in farming is part of a wave of precision agriculture that really only emerged in the United States in the 1980s. This type of agriculture is designed around observing, measuring, and responding to variability in crops because of internal or external factors. Researchers with the University of Minnesota, for example, in 1985 varied lime inputs in crop fields, and grid sampling appeared soon after (in which a fixed grid of a sample per hectare is applied), and by the end of that decade, using grid sampling allowed for swift change of fertilizers and pH corrections. Precision agriculture only evolved from there in the United States, with newer technologies, like drones, allowing individual farmers, should they choose, to more effectively closely monitor larger amounts of acreage, instead of walking through a field, and individually scouting crop conditions using the naked eye.
Crop scouting technology has evolved, according to modernag.org, a farmer’s online educational resource guide supported by Monsanto, including “see-and-spray” technology, which takes pictures of crop conditions then transmits those conditions to the nozzles of crop sprayers, advanced sensors installed around a farmer’s acreage to monitor crop conditions, and the use of drones to take aerial imagery and perform multispectral mapping.
Locally, in the Western Treasure Valley, the idea of utilizing drones for such methods hasn’t quite picked up as compared to that of the Midwest, said Bill Ballantyne, from Nyssa, an entrepreneur who started up his own agriculture imagery business that utilizes drones to take photos of cropland.
Barriers to entry
One of the biggest, and most simple barrier to entry is cost.
According to Ballantyne, drones can cost anywhere from about $1,500 on the low end, up to $20,000+ for higher end models.
It should be noted that generally speaking, drones used in agricultural monitoring can be divided into two categories: quadcopters and fixed wing drones. Quadcopters, with multiple rotors, tend to cost on the lower end of the spectrum, while fixed drones can cost up to $25,000 or more.
According to Ballantyne, quadcopters are easy to learn and use, but a charge will only last about 15 minutes at full tilt, and they are significantly slower than a fixed wing drone.
Fixed wing drones, on the other hand, hold a charge longer, and are faster, but tend to be more expensive, are more difficult to use, and usually need space to take off, Ballantyne said.
Additional costs for using drones for monitoring crops include various imaging equipment that could cost $10,000 or above, such as multispectral imaging, such as infrared.
An additional barrier for those farmers looking to step into the drone market is that the Federal Aviation Administration requires, should a farmer be looking to use a drone in commercial use, to register their drones(s) with the agency; get a remote pilot certificate from the FAA; and fly a drone that weighs less than 55 pounds, among other stipulations.
“Any farmer of any size could afford it,” Ballantyne said. “It’s just whether or not they feel it’s worth it.”
Ballantyne, for example, in his imaging business, typically gets contacted by farmers within the Western Treasure Valley, but the acreage of those farmers is on average about 40 acres.
The J.R. Simplot Company, headquartered in Boise, with about 10,000 employees, which handles frozen food processing, fertilizer manufacturing, cattle feeding, and other businesses related to agriculture, does have a drone pilot, according to Ryan Steele, who handles technology for Simplot.
“We played with it a little bit,” he said.
The company’s drone pilot has acquired all the necessary permitting by the FAA, Steele said, but, “Trying to cover acreage with it takes quite a bit of time,” he said.
For the pilot to even use the drone, he is required to process data and make flight planes each and every time the drone is used.
Instead, Simplot has relied more on satellite use, which shoots images of cropland and has them available within 24 to 48 hours, for Simplot staff, Steele said.
Potential use in agriculture
“They are great diagnostic tools,” said Stuart Nesbitt, who works as the ag advisor for Weiser High School, and teaches classes using quadcopter drones.
The main advantage, he said, in using drones for monitoring crop health, is that they “give you a good bird’s eye view, in real time,” he said.
Other options for real time updates aren’t as effective, Nesbitt argues. A farmer could use a yield monitor (a device paired with a Global Positioning System to monitor crop health), “But those would be too late for a farmer to make adjustments that year,” he said.
Ballantyne said that in his work, his fixed-wing drone, using infrared imaging, “Takes a photo of the ground to see if a crop needs a different kind of nourishment.”
The man has also heard of farmers using drones to find missing cows, especially on large acreages.
Ballantyne’s operation is currently “stalled out,” however, because of software issues, an area he sees as needing improvement.
“Software, right now, is the problem, to compile the information collected,” he said.
“I really do see a future in drones in many different areas, and I see drones being used more in farming,” Ballantyne said. “There’s enough people that want it to work.”
Should the software side of consumer drones, farmers would find a lower barrier of entry, Ballantyne said, as it would be much more user friendly.
Additionally, Ballantyne said he sees the price of drones dropping in the future.
But he doesn’t just have “his foot in the door” with drones. He foresees satellite imagery as becoming a staple in monitoring croplands.