Precision Aerial Ag Conference 2014 Wrap-Up – Five Insights From The Biggest Commercial Drone Event Yet

Over the course of two days last week Colin Snow (www.droneanalyst.com) and I observed commercial drone history in the making.  Surrounded by more than ONE THOUSAND FARMERS at the 2014 Precision Aerial Agriculture Show (aka “PAAS 2014”) in Decatur, IL, we were astounded at the number of attendees and the level of interest they were displaying in integrating drones into their farming operations.  With this many attendees, the event’s producers can almost certainly claim the prize for hosting the single largest commercial drone conference in the short history of the industry, indicative of a market that is rapidly gaining momentum.  From our dozens of interactions with farmers, agronomists, ag retailers, and many others at the event, five big themes regarding the adoption of drones in agriculture come to the surface that will definitely help you refine your own outlook for this fascinating yet highly nuanced segment of the commercial drone market.

#1. Seeing Crops From Above Is The Start of An Agricultural Revolution - The ability of drones to allow farmers to see their entire fields under cultivation puts us at the dawn of an agricultural revolution.  Human beings began farming 12,000 years ago.  When farms were small, it was possible for the farmer to see his entire crop by looking at the field from the edge, or even walking all the rows.  But as farms have grown in size to cover thousands of acres, farmers today can only observe a fraction of their crops from adjacent roads.  Walking the rows is both inefficient and provides an incomplete picture because farms today are simply too big to walk a meaningful percentage of the fields.  The problem is compounded for tall crops like corn, where humans simply can’t see above the stalks as they mature.  Satellite and manned aircraft imagery have been available for some time, but inherent shortcoming have limited their utility.  As a result, for centuries farmers have had to operate like factory managers who can only see a small part of their production line, and have to hope that the machines are running smoothly and that the product will be high quality.

The ability of farmers to see every plant in the field, at any time, creates the first-ever opportunity to manage crops with the same precision that is used in world class, high volume factory production settings where every stage of the production process is carefully monitored and measured.  Drones provide farmers with visibility into the agricultural production process that has never existed before and that is destined to transform large scale farming, driving yields up, input costs down, and transforming agricultural work in the process.  The significance of this development cannot be overstated.

#2. Interest in Drones Among Farmers Is Widespread and Increasing – With over 2 million farms in the United States, the 1,000+ farmers at PAAS 2014 are a small sampling and represent the earliest adopters of drone technology.  But every industry must start somewhere, and for 1,000 farmers to show up in rural Illinois to learn about a single technology (recall that most trade shows / expos cover many products and services) that is still in its infancy, and the use of which is shrouded in a murky regulatory quagmire, is a very good sign indeed.  Discussions with these farmers about interest among their friends and neighbors (who were not at the show) almost always led to comments like “everyone’s trying to learn about it” or “a couple of my neighbors already have one” or “I told them I’d share what I learned when I get back.”  That we are now in the heart of the first growing season since drone-hype was broken lose by Amazon in late December 2013 (several farmers talked about getting their first drones at or around Christmas last year) likely explains the huge surge in interest that has occurred as of late.  This event showed that the gap between the hype and the reality may be smaller than some skeptics believe.

#3. DJI GoPro = PrecionAg in 2014 - Yes, NDVI can be a powerful tool, and it turns out that a hyperspectral camera can be used to find a particular variety of unhealthy corn if you tune it to just the right spectrum of blue light, but in 2014 most farmers just want to see their crops from above.  Indeed, the idea of having on-demand aerial imagery of their crops is so novel and valuable to farmers that many are quite satisfied with basic photographic imagery taken with a GoPro from a low cost DJI drone to get started.  Farmers often know their fields so well, or fly small enough areas that georeferencing is not necessary.  And from photographs they can see things they’ve never seen before: wilting or stressed soybeans in the middle of field that clearly indicate a clogged irrigation nozzle; blown down corn obscured by head-high stalks at the edge of the field; or just a picture of a healthy crop that lets them sleep well at night.  Of course, all of this can be improved upon with orthorectified, georegistered, sensor-derived imagery and analytics.  But in 2014, it’s clear that for most farmers DJI and GoPro are the on-ramp for drones in agriculture and that more advanced technology will be adopted 1) as farmers upgrade during the coming years, and 2) by service providers with whom farmers contract for more complex services.

#4.  No Killer App – A Tool With Many Apps and Likely High ROI – Technologists like to look for killer apps that will drive a particular market.  But discussions at the show confirmed that within agriculture the drone is akin to a smartphone; a tool that has countless different agricultural applications and the value of which increases as a function of the number of applications for which it is used.  Many back of the envelope calculations indicated that a single flight of a drone can potentially cover its cost, but more often than not the ROI (which appears to have the potential to be very high) will come from repeated flights for various purposes over one or more seasons.  Flights to measure plant health, growth stage, storm damage, yield estimation, fertilization timing, proper equipment operation, and other uses combine in a mosaic of uses that do not include a killer app but that together likely provide a high return on a farmer’s investment in a drone.  Indeed Matt Barnard, a farmer and founder of drone vendor Crop Copter said it best when he told me “None of our customers are using their drone for the same purpose.  We need to stop telling farmers what drones can do and listen to them tell us what they want to use them for.”

#5. Uncertainty Created By The FAA Is Absolutely Having A Chilling Effect – Amidst the curiosity and excitement at PAAS 2014 was a lot of head scratching about whether flying a drone in America in 2014 is a good idea.  The subject of drone regulation is sufficiently nuanced and complex that I could see farmers’ eyes rolling and glazing over even as Brendan Schulman, the leading expert on drone law, delivered a presentation on the subject that could not have been any more engaging.  Many farmers at the show (reminder: early adopters) seem to think that what they are doing (i.e. flying over their own fields) is legal or that the chances of getting caught are low, and are willing to fly anyway.  But some at the show were not so sure, particularly after listening to Mr. Schulman’s speech.  And of particular note, large UAV vendor Trimble will not sell its products in the US for fear of being implicated in any wrongdoing by a rogue operator.  Similarly, industry leader PrecisionHawk is selling only to researchers who have COAs, as part of its strategy to be a friend of the FAA.  Other vendors are less concerned about enabling those who might run afoul of any regulations (however legitimate they may be), but overall it was clear that the buying and selling of UAVs in America is being dampened by regulatory uncertainty and complexity, which is a shame if not a crime.

Over the course of my two days at PAAS 2014 my discussions with farmers and others involved in crop production ranged far and wide and the findings go well beyond what I can reasonably write or ask you to read.  But overall, you couldn’t leave the grassy fields and corrugated steel buildings of the Decatur expo site without feeling that we’re on the verge of something big…provided the FAA allows it to happen.

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