Study: Drone systems can provide higher returns for some farmers

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 -Drones are hot, but the systems that integrate their selection, management and data analysis are about to become even hotter.

Matt Herrington, a consultant for Informa Economics, projects that when drone systems developed by the company Measure are used to scout crops and 3-D map farm terrain, returns on corn could increase between $6 and $10 an acre; soybean returns could jump by up to $2.50 an acre too, and wheat returns could increase as much as $2.25 an acre.

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The extra cash would come when farmers, who as a group “tend to over-apply inputs” when they don't employ site specific applications, use drones to identify areas that need more or less inputs, like pesticides and fertilizer, Herrington said. When such inputs are applied more precisely, costs not only go down, but yields tend to go up, according to Measure's study, sponsored in part by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Lockheed Martin and PepsiCo.

As the analysis was released, Measure President Justin Oberman told a room of Farm Bureau and other ag representatives that his company is ready to roll out special tools - called ROI (return on investment) calculators - that will allow farmers to optimize their inputs and yields. The ROI crop-scouting calculator works by aggregating biomass data - derived from aerial images and a type of infrared image captured by drones - and entering numbers from the USDA's Economic Research Service cost of production forecasts.

Oberman's “drone system” company is different from traditional drone companies in that it sells services, not the drones. For example, the system offered by Measure includes drone “mission” flights to scout acreage, and at an additional cost, data processing to be used later for yield and input optimization. Farmers are not required to buy, service, insure or operate the drones themselves with Measure's system, which amounts to big savings and more accurate statistics, all without “having to worry about the technicalities of getting airborne,” Oberman said.

Crop insurance companies could also profit from the technology, Herrington added, by using aerial imagery to identify and assess claims more quickly and accurately than an adjuster walking a field. The companies could also crack down on fraudulent crop insurance claims, which make up 4 percent of all claims each year.

Farm Bureau members will be offered special rates on the systems, which range in price from $50,000 for a three-month contract and the use of two multi-rotor drones, to $200,000 for a 12-month deal and the use of eight drones - four multi-rotor and four fixed wing.

Those members will have to wait a while, though. Currently the FAA prohibits use of small unmanned aerial systems, or drones (less than 55 pounds), in commercial operations unless an operator acquires a special exemption. The agency released a proposed rule governing such operations in February and the 60-day public comment period on the proposal closed April 24. There is no timeline for finalizing the rule. The standing proposal would limit flights to an altitude of 500 feet and to visual line-of-sight operations, which would be impractical for most agricultural applications. Ag stakeholders are working to change the line-of-sight restriction.

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