Diseased crops or livestock can cost a farmer his livelihood for the season. So having earlier information about when a disease or another stress, like a pest or drought, is taking hold is extremely valuable.
In agriculture, that’s part of the promise that drone technology brings. Up until recently, drones have been associated with the military and war, and lately, with DIY hobbyists too. But drones (aka unmanned aerial vehicles) for large-scale commercial uses are now poised to lift off in the U.S. in a big way.
"Farmers will be able to produce more with less and ... react to changing conditions much more quickly," says Ernest Earon, president of PrecisionHawk, a company that is making an unmanned aerial vehicle tailored for agriculture.
As the Federal Aviation Administration begins permitting drones in U.S. commercial airspace, the industry expects to expand dramatically. Despite more broad concerns about privacy and surveillance of the general public, its biggest market is likely to be spying on corn, wheat, and other crops. A report in March produced by an industry group projected that agricultural uses would comprise 80% of the market over the next decade.
PrecisionHawk’s work shows how it might be done.
It has designed its unmanned aerial vehicles to be extremely simple to use. "For a farmer or even an agronomist or an agricultural researcher, they don’t want to be a UAV pilot or an electronics engineer," says Earon.
Launching the lightweight three-foot long vehicle requires a toss into the sky, like you would a paper airplane. The flight software is designed so that minimal tinkering is involved. A farmer could set the area to be surveyed, and the UAV does the rest, including planning the flight course and adapting to changing conditions based on the data it gets from the seven or eight sensors it’s carrying. It also knows when it’s facing trouble—if the winds are too high, it will come back and land. If its battery is running low, it will do the same.
What’s actually interesting, though is less about how the drone flies, and far more in the data that it collects with its sensors. Since the company does not sell to the military, where the drone’s navigation and maneuvering capabilities matter more, PrecisionHawk cares far less about the hardware and considers its mission mostly about the insights that are possible from the remote sensing data its machines collect.
Today, farmers have a difficult time collecting much data about what’s on their fields. Satellite imagery is expensive and imprecise, and flying manned aircraft is often impractical. Drones promise to deliver them a lot more data. For example, scientists know that both plants and animals, like beef cattle, heat up a bit, even at the very early stages of being stressed or ill—and a thermal camera on a drone can detect that (see images in the slideshow above). The cameras can also help researchers detect diseases in wild herds, such as chronic wasting disease in elk and deer.
Right now, PrecisionHawk is conducting a number of pilot projects with Midwest universities like Purdue and Indiana State. It’s also working with some of the research and development arms of the big agricultural giants, though it won’t say which ones. "They are flying incredibly expensive hyperspectral sensors on our birds. They see in 100 different colors and bands of light." The idea, says, Earon is that they could use the cameras to pick out promising hybrids and genetic traits, as well as ones that exhibit very specific and easy-to-monitor spectral signatures when stressed or ill—-and then use them in future commercial breeds to make them easier to monitor for early warning signs of stress.
The result of more data is a growing push towards what companies and farmers are calling "precision agriculture." Rather than spraying nitrogen fertilizer on his whole field—which costs money and leads to more pollution—this means a farmer could target the areas that need it. Or, for livestock, if he knows that only three cattle are getting sick, he might only give antibiotics to them. "Today, depending on the crop, a farmer might have to decide it’s better to let a third of your crop whither because the cost of spraying the whole field is too high," Earon says. It’s also not hard to see how successful precision agriculture could help more efficiently produce food to feed a hungry world, with a lower environmental cost.
Last month, PrecisionHawk raised an angel investment from Bob Young, the founder of RedHat, a public company that supports open-source software, and the innovation investment fund of Indiana University. The firm plans to open up parts of its platform for others to design new agricultural applications and sensors to use. For example, a hog farm might want to create a way to monitor a methane plume, a form of pollution from its operations.
"So far, we’ve been giving farmers an airplane with a camera on it, and saying now you have to go figure out how to do agricultural stuff with it. That’s a very different mentality," says Earon. "It’s not about the plane. But about the data you collect."