Drone use and adoption across hemispheres

Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

Drones can do a lot when it comes to food production – but has their full potential actually been realised on the farm?

According to some, that’s a negative. Indeed, it’s a result of both marketing misdirection and a general lack of understanding on where drones can fit in an agricultural system.

Prescriptions hard to determine

For Canadian growers, the financial and time commitments required to accrue, process, and act on drone-derived data has been a significant barrier to achieving the crop analysis goals as described by the marketing.

“What happened was we bought them, and now they’re sitting on the shelf,” says Dale Cowan, senior agronomist and agronomy strategy manager with AGRIS and Wanstead Cooperatives – an Ontario grain marketing and input supply company. “It required expensive software, then you still need to do something with it. It requires verification. There wasn’t a big revelation.”

Drones just another tool

Fundamentally, Cowan says drones are just another tool, and they need to be thought of as such, though the sensors which the drone carriers are the real point of interest. Leveraging those sensors as a scouting extension – rather than attempting to analyse multiple maps and data sets – is where much of the practical opportunities lie.

A decent camera, for example, can go a long way in revealing what’s happening in the field (e.g. stand gaps, nutrient deficiencies, insect damage, etc.) at any given time. Cowan adds many companies selling drones are making it simpler to run imagery analysis, but again emphasises the importance of designing user-friendly interfaces in such programs. Imagery analysis of any kind tends to be more time consuming, after all, and farmers can’t necessarily make that investment.

“What’s often missing is these things need to be descriptive, predictive, and have a prescriptive aspect. We’re not there yet but I think that’s really the long-term thing,” he says.

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Leveraging drone sensors as a scouting extension – rather than attempting to analyze multiple maps and data sets – is where much of the practical opportunities lie. - Photo: Canva

Leveraging drone sensors as a scouting extension – rather than attempting to analyze multiple maps and data sets – is where much of the practical opportunities lie. – Photo: Canva

Complex uses over-emphasized

On the other side of the world, Australian growers and ranchers are running into similar problems. For Fiona Lake, a Queensland-based drone operator and photographer specialising in agriculture, the makers and marketers of drones have undersold simple uses for the technology. They have simultaneously oversold complex uses, as well as designs overlay large in size, thus pushing drones as a solution for tasks to which they are, in fact, ill suited.

Lake says checking water stocks on large-acreage ranches in the Australian bush, for example, has been identified by drone marketers as an ideal task for drones. In actuality, however, installing water level sensors is often much more economical given the time and resources otherwise required to aerially monitor reservoirs spread across thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of acres.

I’ve met so many farmers who have wasted thousands of dollars on drone related gear that just isn’t suitable or isn’t fully utilised

Drones are similarly poor tools for tracking cattle over such distances, though Lake says the technology is frequently marketed for the purpose. Good electronic ear tags, even on single animals within a family unit, are a better alternative. “I had one bloke tell me they saved $ 20,000 with the drone…They would have saved more with electronic tags,” says Lake. “I’ve met so many farmers who have wasted thousands of dollars on drone related gear that just isn’t suitable or isn’t fully utilised.”

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Fiona Lake: “Simple drones can earn their keep with one discovery.” - Photo: Fiona Lake

Fiona Lake: “Simple drones can earn their keep with one discovery.” – Photo: Fiona Lake

Small drones

Conversely, small drones are ideal for farmers who wants to “dip their toe” into drone use, without committing a large amount of time and money. Like Cowan, Lake believes such machines can effectively extend a grower’s scouting efforts, allowing them to identify problems earlier – such as whether feral pigs have bedded-down in a cane field, or any other thing not visible from the field edge.

Employing small drones can also help operators easily inspect farm infrastructure (e.g. windmills and signal towers), and know what to look for if they decide to engage the services of a specialist drone operator.

“For mapping with drones, there have been issues with poor mapping data quality, interoperability issues and a lack of use or usefulness…Plus, satellite data has been becoming cheaper to obtain, more frequent, and more detailed,” says Lake.

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Fiona Lake retrieving a drone after taking photographs of a bulk sugar terminal. - Photo: Cheryl Robertson

Fiona Lake retrieving a drone after taking photographs of a bulk sugar terminal. – Photo: Cheryl Robertson

Input application opportunities

As designs and autonomous capabilities improve, both Cowan and Lake say the potential for drones as input application tools is something to consider – to a degree.

Drones which can carry workable quantities of liquid are by nature significantly larger in size. Cowan says this fact means it’s likely a technology which will, by-in-large, be adopted by ag-service providers or larger farm operations. Still, it’s a system which could prove valuable for growers trying to remedy localised problems, such as pockets of micronutrient deficiency, without damaging surrounding plants.

“How can we pick up incremental gains in yield? We’re very intrigued by that concept,” he says. “What’s holding us back is nothing been registered that can be applied by drone. It will likely just be micronutrients for now.”

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Fields in Tasmania. - Photo: Fiona Lake

Fields in Tasmania. – Photo: Fiona Lake

Drones as sprayers a rarity in Canada

The use of drones as sprayers is a rarity in Canada, and according to Lake, the same is true in Australia. But while planes are still the practical approach on large acreages, she says there is ample opportunity for spray drones on higher-value crops, and on smaller farms. This is particularly true for those in more densely populated areas, coastal regions, and other places where drift-related concerns are higher.

Using drones as input application tools takes time, and resources, however. For this reason, Lake also says the technology likely makes more sense for service providers and farm businesses with deeper resource pools.

Also read: Drone spraying takes off as regulations relax worldwide

Marketers miss half the market

Drones or otherwise, Lake believes ag-tech designers and sellers are missing the mark in another way. Despite the fact that women play a vital role in Australia’s agricultural landscape, that is, they don’t appear to factor into the conventional ag-industry equation – whether in the tech sphere, or just generally. Indeed, her experience indicates women tend to approach technology from a different direction, and by asking questions which are otherwise not addressed by standard marketing practices.

The missing ingredient regarding ag-tech uptake is women. Include women at every step of the process and the uptake of ag-tech will increase

“There’s no effort put into including women. Every aspect of ag-tech markets to appeal to men, but in Australia it’s often women who run the office and manage the finances. So often the man comes home from a field day excited about a piece of tech he wants to buy, and the woman is unconvinced it’s practical or financially wise.”

“The missing ingredient regarding ag-tech uptake is women. Include women at every step of the process and the uptake of ag-tech will increase. For example, a couple of people have run women-only ag-tech events here and they’ve been very well received.”

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Crops in the far north of Queensland. - Photo: Fiona Lake

Crops in the far north of Queensland. – Photo: Fiona Lake

More ag-specific options are needed for drones

Regardless of what marketers do, Lake also reiterates more ag-specific options are needed for drones to really take off as a useful farm and ranch tool. As of this writing, she says Australia’s agricultural drone industry has been dominated by one brand which does not specialise in agricultural drones. This has been detrimental to wider adoption in a variety of ways, including a lack of local service, short battery life not adapted to on-farm needs.

“We could really do with a specialised business servicing Australia with petrol powered ag drones.”

Mcintosh
Matt Mcintosh Correspondent North America