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Drones in Australian Agriculture – The Hype and the Reality

It’s almost every day that there is an article in Murdoch’s Rural Press about new use cases for drones, and the “new breed” of farmers who are using it. It’s not a new topic either – these stories have been running for a few years now. A new drone here, a new use case there – want to use drones to measure pasture biomass or move an unruly bull? Here’s someone that’s doing it now.

Like all new technology, the hype always precedes the reality and whilst early adopters get out there and discover what works and what doesn’t, for rural producers it’s evident that most are adopting the “wait and see” approach. This is not unsurprising considering the types of businesses found in rural Australia, where 99% of farms are family owned, and the average age of producers is approximately 56 years (ABS, 2016) These producers have survived this long by not jumping on every bandwagon and making decisions based on hard facts and proven reputation.

Drones have shown a lot of potential but as with all new technologies the first operators to push this into the market typically overpromise and fail to understand the nature and workflow of the hardworking people that run the land.

In true rural Aussie fashion there’s a story that was told to me by a farmer last year:

Yeah – I had one of those drone guys come out last a few months ago telling me he could map my farm and increase my profitability. He came out for the day, flew his drone and buggered off. Didn’t hear from him for two weeks. When he came back, he gave me a drone and a fancy two page report that told me nothing I didn’t already know. Sometimes I get the drone out to check my fences, but it’s a waste of money – my kids fly it for fun now. (Don – Singleton, Australia)

For those that don’t know the Garner Hype Cycle (above), it’s a rough illustration of the journey that most technologies go through before it proves its worth. As in that farmer’s story earlier it’s been fairly clear that we have already experienced the “Trough of Disillusionment“. There are many producers out there who have already concluded that “drones are toys” and have been disappointed with the promise. It also doesn’t help that many of the startups and technologies have been formed in American or European markets, which do not have the challenges of expanse, climate and communications that Australia has.

Thankfully, as with all new technologies, after this period of disenfranchisement, two things typically happen. Firstly, the vendors and service providers pivot and create 2nd or 3rd generation technologies that better suit the profitable use cases. Secondly, the education is finally getting to end users on the benefits of data-driven agriculture and the need to explore technology as a differentiator and way to offset risk.

Even at this point, only 5% of farmers are using drones as a part of a daily operation, however this number is expected to grow to 25-30% in the next few years.

There have been a few developments recently that prove that this slope of enlightenment is now real.

Communications

Australian farmers have for years bemoaned (and rightly so) the lack of communications in the bush. As many drone missions involve photogrammetry and advanced post-mission analysis, this relies on phenomenal computing and algorithm resources which vendors have typically put “in the cloud”. This makes sense for European or American markets, but has kept Australians firmly shut out.

Thankfully this issue has been identified and technology such as Sentera’s “live-NDVI” allows NDVI imagery to be accessed immediately as the drone is flying, not hours or days after the flight. What this means is a farmer can scan a field “ad-hoc“, and identify problem areas immediately for ground-truthing. For other processing-heavy tasks, much work is also afoot to move this processing closer to the farm, allowing higher-resolution processing to happen on an iPad or laptop, rather than on a dedicated powerful computer (whether local or in the cloud).

Speed and Integration of Good Data

What this really means is better decisions happen faster through quicker meaningful information. This has been a key drawback of drone technology in its early years. To quote another story:

When I get up on Monday morning, I look at the weather forecast for the week. If I see a front coming through on Thursday, I need to know today whether I need to call in a sprayer to do a job on Tuesday before the front hits. Drones can’t work this fast – the best I can do is call up some satellite imagery and hope it’s not cloudy. (Ben, Griffith)

This means that the challenge to be overcome is not just “can I get the data quickly” it’s “can I answer the question quickly”, which means that drone data, whether nDVI, RGB or other, has to be integrated with other sensors, ground-truthed and produce a reliable answer the day before the farmer decides to call the sprayer.

What is known is that this area has progressed quickly, but still needs work. As products mature and standards start to consolidate, frameworks will emerge where drone data integrates seamlessly with other products and allow near-real-time answers. It’s not far away.

Farmers start to operate their own drones and get trained

Central to any business case, the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is not just the equipment, maintenance and training, it also includes the labour to operate it, which is at a premium on any farm. This single factor is often the reason that many farmers, if they choose to use drones, will outsource it to drone operations companies.

The challenge with outsourcing is that whilst the cost is known and predictable, the value of drone data lies in analysing historical trends and if outsourced as regularly as it needs to be, quickly becomes the more expensive option.

A trend starting to surface now is that farmers are able to obtain fairly high-quality drones, even with specialist sensors such as multispectral and thermal, at more affordable prices, and are investing in the training so that they can learn how to get the most value from their equipment.

The output of this is that individual farmers are getting more access to ad-hoc as well as historical data, allowing them to understand trends and discuss them with specialists such as agronomists. As they obtain training they are also venturing out into different use cases, increasing the return on investment they are getting from their equipment.

Conclusion

There is a lot of optimism for agricultural drone use, and this has followed much trial and error as all disruptive technologies experience. Producers are starting to ask different questions now – not “why should I use a drone” but rather “how can I use it properly?“. Training is now high on the farmer’s list and as a result you can expect to see a flurry of more articles in the local as drones start making it to the mainstream.

UAVAIR believes deeply in the value of drones in Agriculture and that training is more than just compliance. Please reach out to discuss how drones can help your operation.