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Can UAVs Really Be Game-Changers for Agriculture?
When unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) began circling in earnest over agriculture, they created quite a buzz. Yet, many in ag kept their distance.
“We saw a number of ag retailers, co-ops, and large ag companies really keeping the technology at arm’s length because of the lack of regulations and the cumbersome Section 333 process, which allowed certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations,” says Brett Haas, an Illinois farmer and co-owner of Crop Copter. “There were really only a few early adopters willing to take a risk and move forward.”
It was a gamble that ag cooperative Viafield took nearly three years ago. “The company was interested in learning more about UAVs and how the technology could benefit its customers,” says Regina Hoffman. “During a college internship, Viafield assigned me to gather information on the various platforms, brands, and cameras to learn what the technology could and couldn’t do.”
As a licensed pilot, she was a perfect fit to pursue all the potential that UAVs held for agriculture. Once she graduated from Upper Iowa University, Hoffman was hired as an agronomy account relationship manager and began developing a UAV program for the cooperative.
Based in Randalia, Iowa, she says, “We really focused on safety and wanted to go about things the right way. That meant we had to apply for a Section 333 exemption. I finished the paperwork in October 2014, but we weren’t approved until February 2015.”
At the time, the cooperative was one of only five companies granted an exemption by the FAA to offer a commercial UAV service to growers. Finally able to move forward, Viafield began marketing its eBee fixed-wing and Crop Copter rotary-wing services, which range in cost from $100 to $170 per flight.
“With the fixed-wing, I can fly a field and take pictures with a near-infrared camera,” Hoffman explains. “Those images are stitched together to create a crop health map that identifies stressed areas needing attention. I geo-reference that information and take it out to the field so I can determine exactly what the issue is in a specific spot.”
Crop Copter, she says, essentially gives you an airplane ride over your field from the ground. “You can look through the first-person view goggles and see what’s going on in real time,” Hoffman says. “If there is a particular area you are interested in or if you see something you want to get a closer view of, you can tell me which direction to fly.”
Yet, convincing its customers there is value in these services has been a tough sell for the cooperative, which has 18 locations in Iowa and Minnesota.
“I think many farmers are afraid to spend money right now,” says Brad Brownell, who farms near Westgate, Iowa. “The corn doesn’t know it’s only worth $3, and you can’t treat it that way.”
Ray Asebedo is accustomed to farmers questioning the value of precision ag technology, especially when profit margins are tight. “Growers will tell me, because commodity prices are down, it’s not a good time to invest,” says the Kansas State University assistant professor of precision agriculture. “I have the reverse logic. I think the best time for proving the value of a precision agriculture method like a UAV is when the profit margin is so tight. You no longer have that margin of error, and you need to optimize inputs now more than ever. Making the right decision is critical, and these tools can make a difference.”
The other misconception, Haas adds, is that it takes a large number of acres to see a benefit.
“Many growers feel they don’t have enough acres to justify investing in various precision ag technology. I think the same can be said about a UAV,” he says. “However, scouting a field to identify a problem early – whether you have 1,000 or 10,000 acres – can be an invaluable tool in heading off a problem before it takes a toll on yield. That’s a great investment for any size grower at around $2,000.”
For Brownell, the value is clear. “When I was sidedressing this past June, I noticed short and tall spots in the field,” he recalls. “I was fairly certain I had a drainage issue. I contacted Regina and asked her to fly the field to confirm what I suspected.”
The imagery revealed not only where existing tile lines were but also where more should be placed. “Three weeks later, the tassels were shooting, and I could really see where the drainage needed to be addressed,” he says. “It also gives me the information I need when I go to a banker or landlord so I can show them exactly what the needs are in that field.”
However, Hoffman admits that processing the information has been a challenge. “When we first started offering the services, it would take a week to get an image back from the company we outsourced it to,” she recalls.
Although the turnaround time has improved, it’s still not unusual, depending on the field and how it lays, for a day or two to go by before information is received back.
“Early adopters like Viafield took the risk when others were holding back. The problem is, the technology wasn’t quite there yet, and much of it was untested. Nobody really knew the roadblocks we’d run into along the way,” says Haas. “A lot of that comes back not necessarily to the aircraft but in processing the data. A general flight collects 2 to 3 gigabytes of data. Managing these huge amounts of information and then being able to turn that into usable data in a very short period of time is a challenge.”
Ultimately, it’s all just noise if the data isn’t translated seamlessly and efficiently into usable information.
A Gap To Fill
That’s the big hole in the industry right now, says Asebedo. “Co-ops and consulting agencies are trying to interpret the imagery and to formulate the recommendation because they don’t have an algorithm designed to help them put it into a nice, calibrated format,” he says. “The performance of the algorithm that interprets this data to streamline the whole process is absolutely essential. Until that happens and we see consistently improved numbers in the economics on the farm, it’s difficult for co-ops to justify doing this.”
Whether it’s a co-op, consultant, or farmer who is very progressive, it’s a common concern both Haas and Asebedo are hearing.
“We’re not giving farmers exactly what they want. They should be able to buy a system, push a button, fly the field, and have an algorithm analyze it,” says Asebedo. “Then they get the recommendations and yield estimates right there and then. They don’t want to spend their time figuring out the science of putting this all together. That’s my job. It’s a big hurdle we need to get over if we want this technology adopted.”
Haas says a lot of growers they talk to see the value of a device that can give them a bird’s-eye view of their fields. However, what the company found is that farmers are not willing to spend more than $5,000 on a system.
“I think we overestimated farmer adoption and believe a systems approach is where this industry is headed,” says Haas. “Farmers want a less expensive device that will allow them to easily identify a problem. They can then ask a service provider to take a closer look and provide a recommendation. Also, they don’t want to spend the time it takes to collect the imagery. I think that’s been an industry-wide misconception. Folks don’t understand that it is a time-consuming process.”
Building The Link
Companies like PrecisionHawk and DJI are trying to bridge that gap with their Smarter Farming package, which is a UAV platform that comes with the sensors needed. At the same time, the pair is working to provide automatic processing analytics.
“To achieve this, they are partnering with universities like ours to get the necessary algorithms into these systems,” says Asebedo.
For nearly a decade, Asebedo’s research has been heavily focused on a whole, integrated solution geared toward making nitrogen recommendations.
“A major pain point for growers every year is deciding how much nitrogen to apply and when,” he says. “One of the most requested products by farmers is a tool that can help make better nitrogen recommendations.”
These systems, Asebedo adds, have to be a one-stop shop and give farmers the direct product they want.
“There are only two things farmers care about: what’s happening in their fields and the recommendations for those fields,” he says. “They don’t necessarily care about an NDVI map, because that doesn’t tell them what they need to know.”
Asebedo has joined forces with DJI to put the algorithms his team has developed into UAVs. “This collaboration is a step in the right direction,” he says.
The algorithm that gives the nitrogen recommendation, as well as a yield estimate right in the field, will be available in 2017.
“The sensor company we’ve been working with is doing similar research with the University of Minnesota,” says Haas. “I think nitrogen recommendations are going to be one of the earliest benefits to come out of UAVs.”
Crop Copter is also studying yield prediction in corn and soybeans.
“There is a correlation between an NDVI image and final yield of a field,” he says. “In the next year or two, you will be able to fly your field after pollination and get a yield estimate that will probably be within 5% of your final yield.”
Asebedo’s department is also developing a tool for the cattle industry. “Most farmers we work with run diverse operations and have livestock,” he says. “We will have cattle applications, like being able to reconcile cattle numbers and find cattle in pasture, out next year. The more farm applications these devices have, the greater the ultimate increase in the return on investment.”
What are your future purchase plans for an unmanned aerial vehicle?
- 3% will own within next 12 months
- 9% already own one
- 17% will own within next 1 to 2 years
- 33% will own in 2+ years
- 38% don’t plan to purchase
From the very beginning, Brett Haas and Matt Barnard, cofounders of Crop Copter, have stressed the importance of follow-up customer service when investing in a system.
“Last year and early into this year, we talked to people who’d paid a lot of money for a system but found it didn’t do anything for them,” says Haas. “Now they can’t get support if they have questions or need a part. Unfortunately, only about one of every five people we talked to had a successful experience with a UAV.”
An important question that needs to be asked, says Ray Asebedo of Kansas State University, is what the maintenance cost associated with these devices will be. “Also, is there infrastructure in place to get parts quickly to minimize downtime when a failure occurs? It’s not a question that is asked all that much, but it’s absolutely critical,” he says.
Now that the FAA has established final rules for commercial use of small UAVs, Asebedo also wonders whether the myriad companies interested in ag are prepared for what’s next.
“Are they ready for the demand on parts and service needed for this market?” he asks.
Given the choice, would you prefer to hire a service or purchase your own UAV?
- 49% hire a service
- 36% purchase own
- 15% hire a service and purchase own
A Valuable Research Tool
AgReliant Genetics, one of the top five research programs in North America, has been using UAVs to evaluate its high-value crops.
“These devices are allowing us to get more data on our breeding and production methods,” says Noah Freeman, manager of precision ag technologies with AgReliant Genetics.
The way the company will integrate the technology into its sales process is still an unknown.
“I’m fairly certain some of our sellers and dealers have their own UAVs and have flown fields in a show-and-tell situation,” he says.
Documenting what is going on in a field is priceless. UAVs provide a whole new perspective on what’s happening in a field, with wet spots, for example, or weed-pressure issues.
“It’s really a great sales tool to show a picture of a field that nobody has ever walked to the back of. Beyond that, trying to find a lot of value can be difficult,” says Freeman.