Although Japan has been using drones for farming for some time, the activity is catching on elsewhere. Why the interest? Drone cameras can quickly move images to software for analysis to tell Farmers how crops are doing and what interventions may need to be put in place if there are any issues.
Mapping analyzes can include but are not limited to:
- Water variations;
- Patterns in soil type, canopy height, or measures of crop health such as color and density;
- Patterns of crop/soil damage or equipment malfunction/breaks;
- Patterns of where erosions are occurring; and
- Statistical maps across time or other reference data displays.
With many drones on the market already, analysts are continuing to boost revenue estimates. A 2016 market prediction from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP puts the peak market at $32.4 billion. Another firm, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, also has high estimates at $82 billion in the U.S. alone between 2015 and 2025, which it calculates by projecting that farming uses will be over three-quarters of commercial drone use.
Players in the market include: Precision Drone, AeroVironment Inc., Raven Industries, 3D Robotics, AgEagle, Agribotix, Yamaha, SenseFly and PrecisionHawk.
Each company is using similar unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, ranging in price from $3,000 to higher levels of $15,000 and beyond (including a software service subscription) that combines camera and sensor with GPS and other mapping software connected to a motor and battery. Coverage ranges from one hundred to several thousands of acres and settings can be fully or partially automated.
Because drones are typically used for surveillance and monitoring, customers design the software and sensor packages to suit their needs. For example,
Agribotix’s starter drone, Agrion, at approximately $3,000 to $5,000, contains a near-infrared sensor that enables a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) map to display the relative health of vegetation across a field. Healthier areas are shown in green, whilst less viable areas are in cascading mapping colors from yellow to red to gray.
Mapping results can be viewed in supplied software that also works in mobile devices or downloaded to other formats such as Google Earth.
SenseFly’s eBee SQdrone, at price points of between $10,000 to $15,000, flies at a cruising speed that ranges from 25-68 mph for 55 minutes over up to 8,000 acres. Its weight, including camera, battery and electric motor, is 2.42 lb. Depending on the job desired, a different type of camera and sensor are attached to the drone. For example, the following list contains the various sensors and their uses:
- RGB (Red/Green/Blue): visual inspection, elevation modeling, plant counting
- NIR (near-infrared): soil property & moisture analysis, crop health/stress analysis, water management, erosion analysis, plant counting
- RE (red-edge): crop health analysis, plant counting, water management
- multiSPEC 4C (multispectral): both NIR & RE applications, except plant counting
- ThermoMAP (thermal infrared) – plant physiology analysis, irrigation scheduling, maturity evaluation, yield forecasting
Helping the drone industry along are the already-issued U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards for commercial drone use, including altitude limits, which removes some of the confusion for all those involved whether they be builders, operators or investors. Part of the license to use drones for work is that a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate must be obtained. If the drone is less than 5 lbs. as many are, no registration is needed. But for any sized drone, should it be used for work, the FAA has several stipulations, regardless of user. They are that the UAV must:
- fly under 400 feet and at or below 100 mph;
- be flown in the day and within a visual line of sight;
- yield right of way to manned aircraft; and
- not fly out of a moving vehicle and not over people
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