Prepare for Takeoff: Digital Farming with Drones

There has been much buzz around innovations in the food industry lately: from lazy people getting their meals delivered weekly by mail to weirdos chugging white goo meant to replace actual meals and eating energy bars made with bugs. While it is difficult to foretell how long these crazy ideas (some seemingly more so than others, of course) will stick around – a common thread among these ideas is efficient consumption. Changing consumption behaviors alone, however, fails to fully address the rising demand for food. Smarter farming that leads to significantly higher crop yields is ultimate solution. Farmers of the modern age increasingly need to do more with less, and at the same time crops diseases, pests, and droughts remain the largest threats to crop yields. Real time monitoring and information collection therefore are crucial in responding to these threats in a timely and effective manner.

PrecisionHawk, a company I came to know very well while working in VC, is a drone company that promises to help farmers gain insights into the wellbeing of their crops and livestock. The application of aerial surveillance in farming has long existed. However, the two traditional methods – satellite imagery and manned airplanes – are both uneconomical and often inaccurate. PrecisionHawk drones are light, low-flying, launch and forget UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) that can carry highly sensitive imaging sensors and capture data across enormous amount of landmass during a single flight. The images are then “stitched” together using software to create a high resolution 2D or 3D map containing several dimensions of data, which can then be used for further analysis. The data collected can be used for a wide variety of analysis – from simple visual inspection to yield forecasting. At a high level, the use cases fall into the following main categories, according to a recent PwC research report [excerpt]:

  1. Soil and field analysis: software creates precise 3-D maps for early soil analysis, useful in planning seed planting patterns. Soil analysis provides data nitrogen-level management
  2. Automatic planting: drones shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing the plant all the nutrients necessary to sustain life, significantly reducing planting cost
  3. Crop dusting: drones scan the ground and spray the correct amount of liquid for even coverage, increasing efficiency while reducing chemicals that can potentially contaminate groundwater
  4. Crop monitoring: software creates time-series animations to show the precise development of a crop and reveal any production inefficiencies, enabling better crop management
  5. Irrigation: drones with hyperspectral, multispectral, or thermal sensors can identify which parts of a field are dry or need more water
  6. Health assessment: drone-carried devices identify which plants reflect different amounts of green light and NIR (near-infrared) light. This information can produce multispectral images that track changes in plants and indicate their health

In conclusion, the economic value from the industrial usage of drones is enormous – according to research by PwC, “the total addressable value of drone-powered solutions in all applicable industries is significant—more than $127 billion… [and] among the most promising areas is agriculture, where drones offer the potential for addressing several major challenges.” The World Bank projects that in the next 30 years, world population will reach approximately 9 billion, and that food consumption will nearly double. Adding to the severity of the issue, climate change is causing less predictable, and more extreme weather conditions that make the farmer’s job even harder. Therefore, key stakeholders from farmers to regulatory agencies all need to embrace new methods and tactics to maintain and improve sustainable productivity – and drones are a critical part of the solution that bring much promise. [602 words]

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8 thoughts on “Prepare for Takeoff: Digital Farming with Drones

  1. I wonder how much the cost of the drone hardware could become a barrier to purchase for small and medium size farms, which are operating with fairly thin margins. There may be an interesting opportunity for agriculture services businesses to own the assets to help amortize the high up-front fixed cost across a number of farms, which individually may not require 100% of a drone’s time day-to-day, but could benefit from periodic scans of their property.

    I also wonder if there are other adjacent applications of this technology like cattle or other farm animal monitoring, which might be costly and inefficient today, but could benefit from automation.

  2. One of the key questions in my mind is how feasible this technology is to farming industry in emerging markets. In the U.S., the farm lands are largely owned by one single owner. In other words, one farmer owns a larger piece of land than a farmer in emerging market such as China. The key growth population will be in Asia and Africa in the next couple decades. Will this farm drone service be applicable in markets with segmented and smaller-sized farms? When entering markets where regulatory authority is keen on keeping the land and farming information as “sensitive” data? How will farm drone companies like Precision Hawk obtain license and permission to collect data and generate the 2D or 3D farming map? I will be curious to know how Precision Hawk combat these issues as they roll out commercial plans for expansion in these markets.

    1. I agree that this is not feasible in emerging markets on an individual farmer level. I can imagine a system where large swaths of land are monitored by the government or a private entity funded by the government to aid the farmers. The data can be aggregated into one data base that can then by accessed by the farmers. For example, a terminal used for an eChoupal could act as a window into the drone collected data.

  3. I think this is a really neat application of technology. At first it may only be available for those who can afford high prices to enhance their crop yields, but over time as the technology continues to advance, the cost will come down to a price that will be more affordable for the smaller farmer. Perhaps even in the future the drones or technology could apply individual care to each plant, but that may cost even more.

  4. The digitalization of the farm is increasingly important in order to economically improve yields. The question here is how to get this technology to as many farmers as possible in a cost effective way? What is the business model? Could precision hawk price on a per usage basis, or per acre analyzed basis? This way it can help small farmers have these high end tools to increase yields.

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I agree that food supply and security will be a pressing problem for the world very soon and we need to find ways for farmers to be able to harness technology to increase crop yields to match the growing demand. Drones already seem to be one of the most effective types of remote sensors that can be used for precision agriculture. I have a few concerns about the use of drones given some of the drawbacks that may occur. First, how accurate will the imagery be that is produce by the drone given the distance and cloud conditions–will this effect the quality of the data that is produced? Additionally, can this technology replace physical sensors in the ground that can more accurately monitor the soil conditions necessary for plant yields? How useful are drones to daily operational advice for farmers–are drones just applicable for larger farms rather than small plots of land?

  6. Drone technology in agriculture will usher in the next Green Revolution, that is plain to see from your article, Alan! Automation of agriculture will have a long term cascading effect all across the globe, especially in developing nations, where so much of the population is engaged in farming. Integrating all aspects of farming, automating it based on scientific methods and scientific data will not only boost yield and production but will also help in shifting the agrarian population to pursue work in other sectors of the economy over time, thereby increasing overall productivity and hopefully driving innovation.
    Even now, in India, the government has tasked indigenous teams to develop similar drone based mapping systems to solve a very fundamental problem. Every year India is forced to import a substantial amount of cereals and pulses. Because there is no accurate data of expected harvest, India imports food grains and distributes it inefficiently causing several instances of deficiencies and surplus in the various regions, causing wastage and a loss to the treasury. By deploying these drones for data collection, the government hopes to better understand the area under cultivation, and expected harvest for several crops and food items that will help them assess their import requirements and distribution patterns with a certain level of accuracy. As you can see, this technology has a far reaching impact already.

  7. Interesting! Several years ago my friends had a startup doing lots of that by using satellite photos. Now drones can do even more – they can distribute anything over the field! Great idea indeed!

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