Drones Take to the Skies to Keep Food Safer

PrecisionHawk Drone (Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder).

PrecisionHawk Drone (Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder).

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems predicts that 80 percent of the commercial drone market will be agricultural uses. The trade group that represents producers and users of drones recently conducted a study, “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States,” and found that precision agriculture has the most commercial promise in part, for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones’ ability to use sensors to scan plants for health problems, record growth rates and hydration, and locate disease outbreaks. The report estimates that the economic impact across all 50 states will exceed 1 billion dollars with the largest economic and employment impacts in California at $185,307,769.

Another study conducted by Informa Economics and in coordination with Measure and the American Farm Bureau Federation also looked at addressing economic impacts through the development of a Return on Investment (ROI) Calculator for corn, soy, and wheat farmers. The report found that the ROI for crop scouting is $12 per acre for corn, $2.60 per acre for soybeans, and $2.30 per acre for wheat.

Interestingly, both reports found the biggest barrier to use is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). During the 2015 Farm Progress Show held in Decatur, Ill., for the first time a UAV area was set-aside for companies to demonstrate their drone applications. However, The FAA showed up at the event and grounded the drones, but this did not stop growers from learning about their benefits.

PrecisionHawk, Raleigh, N.C., is an emerging drone company that participated in Farm Progress. According to Pat Lohman, vice president of partnerships for PrecisionHawk, his company stands out because it also puts a large emphasis on the data analytics of the information collected.

Lohman says drones will innovate the ag industry in various ways over time, but right now they are able to collect photos in higher resolution than what has been historically collected from satellites. He believes a lot of the innovations will be driven around the sensors. PrecisionHawk has spent nearly six years developing the sensor technology and now their focus is on what’s underneath the ground.

Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder

Photo credit: Joanna Schroeder

“We’re working on integrating ground penetration radar,” Lohman explains. “Now we’re looking at maps that we can see with RGB and infrared cameras. But down the road we’re actually going to be looking at what’s underneath the earth that will tell us things such as soil moisture and if the tiling is not working properly.”

Lohman says their cloud system, Data Mapper, automatically processes images into maps that allow growers to scale technology. “Then there’s also something we call the algorithm marketplace and it will help grow specific applications.” For instance, says Lohman, “plant counting is an application we’ve built internally that will tell us how many plants are in the field and there’s really neat technology that sits behind that. The data can also identify the height of the plants, health of the plants, and canopy cover percentages. There are lots of different facets that in our eyes will come together and provide a lot of very specific information about what we’re looking at.”

According to Lohman, crop surveillance will also play a big role. Working with university partners, they are refining applications that will be able to achieve early identification of specific diseases. They then match the sensor to the algorithm and the resulting tool helps a grower determine a treatment strategy.

What is the next step for UAVs and agriculture? Getting the FAA to release regulations. Lohman believes this should happen mid 2016 and will be designed to enable growers to fly drones commercially and safely.

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is the Editor of DomesticFuel.com as well as a freelance energy and agriculture reporter for other publications including Biofuels Journal, AgWired.com, Biofuels International, Denver Post, Agri-Marketing Magazine, Industrial Biotechnology, Academics Review, and more. She serves as an energy expert for other national media outlets and has been featured in several documentaries. Each month, Schroeder reviews energy and agriculture books with the reviews featured on DomesticFuel.com and syndicated to other news sites. She has a BS in Environmental Science and MS in Technical Communications from Iowa State University.

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