As commercial drones take off, farmers and businesses see opportunity

When Stan Oglesby first bought a drone for his accident reconstruction business, agriculture wasn’t on his mind.

Now, his mind has made a 180-degree turn.

Oglesby and his Concordia-based company, Midwest Accident Reconstruction Services, are among a number of aerial businesses that have turned their attention toward the farming industry in an attempt to capitalize on the opportunity there.

Stan Oglesby, Midwest Accident Reconstruction Services | Courtesy of Midwest Accident Reconstruction Services/Facebook
Stan Oglesby | Courtesy Midwest Accident Reconstruction

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, are aircraft that have no human pilot aboard. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration passed new rules making it easier for unmanned aircraft to be flown for commercial uses. The old rules required operators of commercial drones to have a pilot’s license and apply for a waiver from the FAA.

The new rules allow anyone over 16 to pilot a drone after obtaining a remote pilot certificate, which requires passing an aeronautics test at an FAA-approved facility and submitting to a background check.

According to Phil Solis, a research analyst at ABI Research, commercial drones were a $900 million business globally in 2015. He said that figure would reach $1.3 billion this year. Agriculture has accounted for about a quarter of the global business both years, Solis said.

“There’s a lot of revenue opportunity for the application services,” he said. “It’s just using the (drones) as a vehicle to collect some of that data in order to start a process.”

More efficient scouting

The main focus of Oglesby’s business is accident reconstruction, which involves analyzing and determining the causes of automobile accidents. Oglesby traditionally has used surveying instruments for that part of his business, but more recently he began to incorporate drones into his work. The success he had using drones for accident reconstruction led him to take a shot at agriculture.

“It allows us to do things more efficiently,” he said. “It’s incredibly accurate, and we don’t have to get on the road as much.”

He owns a senseFly eBee mapping drone that allows him to scan acres of a farmland and determine which areas need more fertilizer or water, and where certain crops have gone bad. In the business, this is referred to as “scouting.”

Bill Wiebold, University of Missouri plant sciences professor | Courtesy of the University of Missouri
Bill Wiebold | Courtesy the University of Missouri

The drones that can be used for agriculture vary widely in price, from a few hundred dollars all the way up to $18,000.

“It all depends on the quality of the sensor and what it can detect,” said Bill Wiebold, a plant sciences professor at the University of Missouri who works with drones in agriculture.

With GPS tracking, Oglesby can put the data on a flash drive and give it to a farmer, who can then plug it into a tractor and be directed to the areas that need to be addressed. Ranchers can use the technology to count cattle.

“It has the potential to save a lot of money,” Oglesby said. “If you have 500 acres and you know right where to apply fertilizer, that’s a lot more environmentally friendly because you’re on 500 acres but you don’t need it (for all 500 acres). It saves a lot of money with operating equipment because you can pinpoint where you need it.”

Lincoln Hughes, a farmer in Nevada, Mo., said he can save between $30 to $40 an acre by using a drone to assess how much fertilizer to use when planting corn, wheat or soybeans.

Challenges, opportunity ahead

Though agricultural drones represent a big opportunity for both farmers and businesses like Oglesby’s, obstacles remain. The rules passed in June require unmanned aircraft to remain within the line-of-sight of their operators. Some say that’s holding back progress.

“You have a lot of farmers who still need to be convinced of the cost-effectiveness of these systems, and the cost-effectiveness will benefit once beyond visual line of site can be used for broader areas,” said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group.

Wiebold thinks the companies that can benefit most from farmers’ uncertainty about drones are the ones that farmers are already familiar with, like companies that sell seed, pesticides or tractors. Those companies could develop their own drone businesses, Wiebold said, or team up with companies like Oglesby’s.

“It’ll be unlikely for a new business to start up that only does that,” Wiebold said. “Almost invariably, the local (farm) company is linked into one of those other kinds of companies.”

Another challenge is the complications that can arise when unmanned aerial vehicles rely solely on GPS tracking.

Tom Shales, a photographer in Manchester, Mo., who uses a drone for his business in photography and construction, said he worries about accidents caused by drones that are dependent on GPS tracking and don’t factor in things like birds or helicopters.

“There’s drones out there that the construction industry is looking at that are autonomous drones,” he said. “That scares the hell out of me.”

Despite concerns like those, Finnegan believes agricultural drones are in their infancy and will evolve to serve a variety of purposes.

He noted another agricultural drone use that hasn’t been discussed as much: spraying. Yamaha has been using drones for that for years in Japan, Finnegan said, and the company recently tested the idea on grapes being grown for wine in Napa Valley.

“There’s clearly going to be a market,” he said. “It’s going to take time to develop.”

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