Agricultural drone use allows for more sustainable farming
By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill
Over the past several years, drones have played an increasingly important role in ensuring that farmers can maintain high crop yields in an environmentally sustainable manner, the CEO of agricultural drone company Hylio said in an interview.
Beginning with the first use of small drones in agriculture as data-gathering tools about two decades ago, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has expanded to include material-application drones capable of spreading fertilizer and chemicals to treat crop diseases and control pest infestations.
“Essentially there have been a few general advancements in the drone space that make sustainable ag more possible,” said Arthur Erickson. The current generation of agricultural drones is “just getting a lot more reliable, so I would say that there’s a lot of strides in obstacle-detection and avoidance technology.”
For the smaller, camera-based drones, advancements in sensor technology within the last five years or so have increased the UAVs’ capacity to gather data on important metrics such as soil health, plant population health and identification of weeds. Multispectral sensors, capable to picking up data outside the narrower red-green-blue (RGB) band, “gives you pretty good high-resolution data about the soil health, particularly in nutrient deficiencies,” he said.
While these light-weight data-gathering drones provide the farmer with the knowledge needed to nurture a healthy crop, the more robust and adaptable material-distributing UAVs serve as the workhorses in getting the job done.
This class of drone, in which Hylio specializes, are typically larger — 50 pounds or greater – and are capable of carrying and dispersing either liquid or solid payloads onto crops to achieve some sort of yield-increase function or protective function, Erickson said.
“The application type of drones has only been around for a very short time, relatively speaking. They only became popular here in the United States back in 2017 or 2018,” he said.
Since their introduction into the U.S., probably the most “needle-moving advancement” has been the substantial increase in their payload capacity, which increases the number of acres that can be serviced by a single drone, thus reducing the farmer’s costs and cutting the need for additional laborers.
“They started off relatively small, carrying only 2 to 3 gallons,” Erickson said. Currently, the largest drone that Hylio producers carries a 20-gallon payload, giving it one of the largest payload capacities on the market.
“That’s generally where the high-water mark is right now for payloads, but we are seeing demand in the industry and we are ourselves moving towards drones that are even larger, with 30- to 40-gallon capacities,” he said.
As the drones’ payload capacity has increased, advances in hardware and software technology has made these agricultural distribution drones much safer and more reliable to operate. Strides in obstacle-detection and avoidance technology have made it possible to operate the drones not only over open fields, but also above more difficult or hard-to-reach terrain.
“When you have these large, expensive application drones, as the farmer, you now feel a lot more comfortable just letting it out there, even in somewhat wooded areas or areas with power lines or other obstacles crisscrossing the field,” Erickson said. “Now it has the capability to detect and avoid those obstacles, thus saving you from a potentially quite expensive crash.”
In addition, advances in energy-storage technology over the last several years have greatly extended useful battery life. “Batteries are more energy-dense now,” he said. In the past, an operator could only get 100 to 200 cycles out of the batteries. “Now you can get three-, four-, five-hundred cycles, meaning your operating cost is coming down.”
Agricultural drones improve the sustainability of the farmer’s acreage in several ways. First because a drone is airborne, it can fly over a field in which a crop has already been planted, a great advantage over ground-based spraying.
Second, using the data-collected from a smaller, data-collection drone, the farmer can concentrate the spraying to the areas where they are most needed, thus reducing the volume of potentially harmful chemicals released into the environment.
The use of distribution drones is also cheaper than hiring a third party to come in and spray a farmer’s fields using a plane or a helicopter. This allows the farmer to conduct as many as 10 intelligently designed, highly focused spraying sessions a season, rather than two or three blanket sprayings per year, Erickson said.
“The drones are an a-la-carte solution that you have on demand right there at any given moment, giving you the freedom to be more strategic and intelligent with the inputs you put into your crops,” he said.
Agricultural drones represent a global market
In the past several years the market for agricultural drones, long dominated by Chinese-manufactured DJI products, has grown to become much more competitive for U.S.-based companies, such as Hylio, and those produced in other Western nations, Erickson said.
“What’s really important about Hylio is that we are essentially the only significant American-based manufacturer of these crop-protection drones.”
Globally, DJI leads the market, producing about 80 percent of the world’s agricultural and non-agricultural drones, but that market dominance is subject to change, he said.
“The drone industry is relatively new. It turns out that these Chinese companies got ahead at the beginning here, but that doesn’t mean that America or other Western countries or other countries in general, should just sit back and let them take the lead forever,” Erickson said. “I think it’s really important that there is competition in any marketplace, whether that be domestic or global.”
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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