Agriculture will be the “big winner” in the commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) industry, says UAV specialist and farmer Chad Colby.
“Agriculture could capture about 60-65 percent of the U.S. UAV market,” predicts Colby who has 2,000 UAV flights at his fingertips. That’s about two-thirds of total market share.
He says, “We can improve yields with this technology.”
UAVs will help growers improve water-use efficiency, says Colby, locate pest and disease threats in fields and orchards earlier leading to more timely treatments, plus more efficiently utilize farm chemicals.
At the end of the day, placing more green in producers’ wallets would be icing on the cake.
UAV sales revenue could eclipse the $82-billion level in the next 10 years, forecasts Colby. So far, more than 70,000 jobs have been created in the UAV industry.
Colby shared his UAV experience, foresight, and predictions during a hands-on event at the 2015 American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers’ California chapter’s Outlook Conference in Paso Robles, Calif. in April.
He is convinced that UAVs will improve how producers farm.
In the walnut industry, for example, Colby says a UAV could search for a specific light wavelength associated with walnut blight disease, allowing the grower or pest manager to react faster to the issue, reduce crop damage, and improve productivity.
UAVs are easy to fly, says Colby and several of the class participants, with a hand-held, video game-like controller. Different UAV models and options can produce photos and video with varying quality featuring bird’s eye images of fields, orchards, and livestock operations with far greater resolution than the human eye.
Perhaps the biggest fear for first-time UAV fliers is the fear of crashing the aircraft. Crashes do occur yet Colby has never crashed a UAV during his 2,000 flight hours.
While UAVs may be a huge technological evolution for agriculture, growers are anxiously waiting on the Federal Aviation Administration to finalize who will and will not be allowed to fly the UAV, where, how, etc.
For now, the final FFA regulations are the $10 million dollar question for agriculture.
UAVs or drones have their roots in the U.S. in the military. Colby dislikes the term drone due to the public’s negative image of drones as spy or weapon-carrying aircraft.
In February 2012, one of every three U.S. Air Force aircraft was a UAV.
“Our U.S. military has spent billions of dollars on drone research,” Colby told the crowd.
The research has yielded a ‘microdrone’ which fits between two fingers which when flown can smell the air for toxicity. In general, military drones can fly up to 7-8 hours on a single charge at up to 16,000 feet high.
It will be interesting as the commercial UAV market develops the role that microdrones could have in food, fiber, and fuel production.
For commercial sale today are two types of UAVs – quadcopters with four horizontally-rotating propellers, plus a fixed-wing version. In the short term, quadcopters will likely be the most popular UAV used in U.S. agriculture while larger operations may opt for the fixed wing aircraft.
Colby is no stranger to agriculture and technology. He grew up on his family’s Illinois grain farm. The technological whiz-kid built his farm’s first computer and wrote the operational programs.
Today, Colby splits his time on the speaking circuit talking about how UAV technology can advance agriculture on farms. He also works in precision agriculture with a company that utilizes new equipment to reduce nitrogen use in agriculture to help protect the groundwater.
The company touts a device called 360 SOILSCAN which Colby says can produce an accurate soil analysis in as little as five minutes.
EPA's heavier hand
Colby warned the group that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have a much heavier hand on soil-related issues, including nitrogen use in the future.
“Nitrogen in water and nitrates are the next “10-ton gorilla,’” Colby said. “In the future, the EPA will place limits on how much N can be applied in agriculture.”
He shared that the UAV will help farmers improve crop and livestock quality and yield to increase producer efficiency in the future, and in turn help them feed and clothe an exponentially-growing world population.
“Feeding the world is a huge challenge and we need the technology to do that,” said Colby.
Besides farm use, he believes allied agricultural interests will benefit from UAV use, including farm lenders and appraisers, and insurance companies. No longer will insurance claims be based on ground-only data. Aerial views will allow adjusters to provide more precise estimates of crop damage.
The current UAV price range is from an entry level $1,200 unit up to $100,000 and higher. Colby suggests that first-time buyers purchase an entry level unit which still offers a lot of bang for the buck.
“You can get a great UAV value with a $1,200 unit,” he said. “Buy a cheaper UAV now, play around with it, and learn. Buy a more expensive one later.”
A UAV in the $90,000 range can read the print on a newspaper taped to a building - from 2,000 feet away.
For growers who buy a UAV, Colby suggests taking the aircraft to an open field away from farm buildings. Fly it with no one else around.
Farmers 'fly high'
After the UAV classroom instruction, Colby took participants outside to fly a phantom drones. With controllers in hand, the farm managers and rural appraisers flew the quadcopter without a single crash.
Toggling the controller was California grower Wayne Koligian of Paramount Ag Management. The operation includes about 10,000 acres of citrus, almonds, and pistachios in Madera.
“We’re always trying to be as efficient as possible with large acreage. The UAV could definitely be an advantage in citrus especially during the frost season.”
He envisions a UAV with a weather-type tool sensor to help determine precise air temperatures so wind machines can more effectively raise orchard temperatures to help protect fruit during frost-sensitive times.
Also flying the UAV was farm manager Jose Baer of Oso Ag LLC in Buellton, Calif., who noted, “Flying the UAV is a piece of cake. It’s very easy. It’s remarkable how it can compensate for breezes.”
“The sky is the limit,” Baer says for UAV use on farms. He is interested in a unit with a multi-spectral camera to scout for water and heat stresses, plus plant diseases.
Earlier beet curly top virus control?
Grower Josh Schroeder of Materra Farming with operations in California’s Bakersfield and Imperial Valley areas had previously “flown” a drone in a video game. The UAV class was his first real hands-on experience.
He envisions many UAV options on the farm’s processing tomato, pistachio, and alfalfa operations, including crop monitoring in fast-growing tomatoes where beet curly top virus can quickly impact fruit.
“Time is not your friend in tomatoes if there is an issue or distress with the plant,” Schroeder said. “Curly top can be very devastating and the UAV could help detect it more quickly.”
In summary, Colby repeatedly told the group that safety is the number one concern when flying the UAV.
“Never fly it over people,” he emphasized.