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The future of drones in farming

American Robotics supplies farmers with a fully-automated drone system. We asked Reese Mozer, CEO of American Robotics, 5 questions about their technology and the future of drones in farming.

Data, and the analysis derived from drone flights, is critically important to a farmer. The most common use case of drone derived data and analytics is early weed and disease detection, which protects crop yield and reduces herbicide use.

Farmers also look for plant counting analytics, which can increase yield by improving early-season replanting and better predict yields, in the data they are looking for from a drone system. These use cases and others also have a valuable labor savings component as well, as human crop scouting, either by farm staff or a paid agronomist, is potentially reduced.

American Robotics Scout System

American Robotics’ Scout System, a fully-automated drone system, takes care of the mission planning, flight, charging, data processing, and data analysis, so their customers only need to focus on what to do with that information. Scout was introduced back in 2017. Future Farming asked American Robotics CEO Reese Mozer 5 questions about what the Scout system has to offer and how the company sees the future of drones in farming.

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UAV Scout is ‘parked’ in a closed weatherproof hub or station located in a field. The hub is part of a turn-key package, consisting of an autonomous UAV with visual and multispectral cameras. The hub not only houses the UAV, it also takes care of charging, data processing and data transfer.  - Photo: American Robotics
UAV Scout is ‘parked’ in a closed weatherproof hub or station located in a field. The hub is part of a turn-key package, consisting of an autonomous UAV with visual and multispectral cameras. The hub not only houses the UAV, it also takes care of charging, data processing and data transfer. - Photo: American Robotics

You have developed a fully autonomous drone system. How does it work and why is it a viable tool for farmers?

“American Robotics has developed the next generation of drone technology: a fully-automated drone system capable of continuous, unattended operation. Once installed, autonomous Scout drones work with automated base stations to capture, process, analyse, and transfer data remotely to users. Each base station charges and houses its drone to prepare for the next flight, while processing and uploading the data collected to ScoutView, American Robotics’ web portal and analytics interface.

Over the past five years,we have developed a portfolio of IP that allows our technology to operate continuously and reliably with no humans in the field. Through innovations in robot autonomy, machine vision, edge computing and AI, American Robotics has created an end-to-end solution that allows users to focus on what matters: the data.”

The only way drones can find their place on the farm is if the human operator is removed from the loop and data is processed automatically on site

“The automation enabled by our Scout systems is the key to finally unlocking drones as a viable tool for farmers. Despite the hype surrounding drones for the past decade, our industry remains caught in a scenario where this technology is neither being used on a regular basis nor in a scalable manner.

The only way drones can find their place on the farm is if the human operator is removed from the loop and data is processed automatically on site, allowing farmers to focus their time and their resources on the information this technology produces. To that end, we have developed an end-to-end solution that is optimised specifically for the agriculture industry. Scout systems collect and analyse data in ways not previously possible, unlocking actionable insights in real time at a fraction of the prior cost.”

How do you see the future of drones in agriculture? What more applications can we expect in the future?

“The future of drones in agriculture is unlocked through one critical step: automation. Farmers do not have the time to be drone pilots, and the only way to cover the United States’ massive expanse of acres in a scalable manner is through automated drones. Once this is achieved, the next generation of precision agriculture is enabled through ultra-high resolution, high frequency data.

If we look to the future, where automated drone systems are as common as tractors, we will see increased collaboration between technologies on the farm, further unleashing the benefits of precision agriculture. This will include teaming between automated drones and automated ground equipment, synthesizing aerial image data with ground sensors and weather data, developing a collaborative set of AI that will eventually mimic and improve upon the daily tasks of the farm.”

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Reese Mozer, CEO of American Robotics: "If we look to the future, where automated drone systems are as common as tractors, we will see increased collaboration between technologies on the farm, further unleashing the benefits of precision agriculture." - Photo: American Robotics
Reese Mozer, CEO of American Robotics: "If we look to the future, where automated drone systems are as common as tractors, we will see increased collaboration between technologies on the farm, further unleashing the benefits of precision agriculture." - Photo: American Robotics

Why should you prefer drones over – for instance – satellites, or sensors on sprayers and/or in-field sensors?

“The agriculture industry has been attempting to collect data from the air for the last 50 years through a number of different technologies. This includes satellites, manned aircraft, and more recently manually operated drones. The issue, however, has been that each of these technologies has one or more shortcomings that have prohibited them from fulfilling the promise of valuable, actionable, and scalable data collection.”

Imaging a farm a handful of times per season has little-to-no value

“When looking at the equation of what it takes to make aerial data valuable, actionable, and scalable, you arrive at a set of performance characteristics: image resolution, collection frequency, data accuracy, and cost per acre of acquisition. Why are these important? Because imaging a farm a handful of times per season has little-to-no value, and collecting data at low resolution may provide a general sense of overall health, but does little to actually diagnose the cause of those problems nor do so early enough to take corrective actions.”

“Though manually operated drones initially appeared promising, they fall prohibitively short on cost per acre of acquisition, and thus the ability to capture that data at any reasonable frequency or scale.”

“To solve this problem, there is only one solution that can check all of these boxes and unlock the next generation of data-based farming that this industry has been working towards for decades: fully-automated drones. With our Scout system, the most expensive aspects of operating drones have been eliminated, allowing for sub-cm flights to occur multiple times per day, every day of the year. And because of these performance capabilities, we are able to provide actionable data in real-time with zero effort from the farmer.”

How can a farmer truly add value to his operation using drones?

“The use cases enabled by our Scout system vary between crop type and customer type. At a high level, each use case is about finding problems early and precisely, so a farmer can save money on inputs, labor, and yield.

Once installed in a farm, a Scout system will give a continuous and accurate picture of the health of each plant in each field on a daily basis. This information is then analysed within ScoutView to alert farmers when and where things are changing, how fast those changes are occuring, and help diagnose what might be causing this variation or stress.

Examples of value enabled by the Scout system include early weed detection, early pest detection, early disease detection, drought stress detection, irrigation management and optimisation, early season replanting management, pesticide efficacy studies, and harvest planning.”

When does it make sense financially for a farmer to invest in drone technology, and once he does, how does he get the most out of it?

“With previous drone technologies, a farmer is likely to spend more time and money flying it then extracting any value. As a result, there are few if any cases where manually operated drones make financial sense.

In contrast, our fully-automated Scout system eliminates the most costly aspects of operating drones, while at the same time delivering the highest performance at the lowest possible cost. Included with each Scout system is a proprietary analytics software package that goes beyond pretty pictures and produces actionable insights at sub-cm resolutions.

If a farmer’s operation has weeds, diseases, pests, drought, or other stressors that go undetected before affecting yield, or if a farmer is looking to adopt and expand their precision agriculture techniques, an our Scout system will improve the bottom line.”

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