Expert opinion

What’s your preference – drones or satellites?

In the race for more economically efficient and practical agronomic data, would drones or satellites provide you with the larger benefit?

From what I can tell as an amateur in ag-tech, which technology one chooses depends, at least partially, on scale.

I make this observation after covering several drone and satellite-related stories; ones where farm size and scope are alluded to but briefly. I’m not sure why this is the case because, logically, it seems to be one of the most critical factors when it comes to investments in tech and agronomy.

When does analysing a field by the millimeter make sense?

Indeed, it poses the question – at what point does analysing a field by the millimeter (or metre) make more sense than the other? Farms in my immediate section of North America may not be small, per say, but compared to areas like the American Midwest, our under 1000-acre average (don’t hold me to that guesstimate) is miniscule.

So when an ag-service company wants to sell me on daily-delivered satellite maps, does it make sense?

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A drone flies over a field of leek vegetables. - Photo: Bert Jansen
A drone flies over a field of leek vegetables. - Photo: Bert Jansen

THE difference makers

Companies offering satellite mapping services tout the frequency of flyover and high resolution of satellite imaging as THE difference makers in terms of making practical, real-time decisions on the farm. This makes sense to a degree; if I was managing thousands of acres spread across the vastness of Saskatchewan, it would be difficult to personally keep tabs on each and every quarter. Similarly, paying for drone flights on each acre would likely be financially disastrous. Thus, satellites seem like the way to go.

But if I’m farming 300 acres, walking every row is much more feasible. Indeed, it’s likely preferable. In such a case, the occasional drone flight might be the ticket.

The logic is this – If I’m operating in the thousands of acres, I probably don’t need millimeter efficiency. If operating in the hundreds, the millimeter scale seems much more attainable.

Drone services more popular than satellites

This is not a profound idea. Indeed, it seems somewhat obvious, and I don’t wonder whether this is the reason drone services appear more popular than satellites in Ontario; whether this is true or not I am unsure – it’s just a personal observation from a small corner of the globe, so please take it with a large pinch of salt.

Perhaps it comes down to tech-hype, and nothing more

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume the observation is true. Why, then, does one encounter arguments saying one technology will ultimately overtake the other as universally important? Like everything in agriculture, the scale of analysis afforded by drones and satellites seems, at least to this author, to reflect the diverse needs of diverse farm operations. Perhaps it comes down to tech-hype, and nothing more.

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A map generated with the help of a drone. When do you need millimeter efficiency? - Photo: Ruud Ploeg
A map generated with the help of a drone. When do you need millimeter efficiency? - Photo: Ruud Ploeg

Know your goals

Fundamentally, is it not more important to know what goals you’re trying to accomplish before investing in either – or indeed any – new technology? I wouldn’t buy a massive Case 9240 if the older 1660 will do the job; how is mapping technology any different?

Of course, whether one can even use the data provided by satellites and drones is another story. But I would argue this also comes down to first establishing specific goals for the farm, then looking for the right tech to match. Know what you’re looking for and how you can use it, then go find it.

Greater emphasis on helping individual farmers

I recognise service companies are trying to sell a product, so a little extra hype is to be expected. This is by no means nefarious. However, I’ve caught myself musing about the rhetoric used in ag-data marketing, and wonder whether greater emphasis on helping individual farmers develop and act on goals shouldn’t play a larger role.

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