Winston Churchill and the Secretary of State for War waiting to see the launch of a de Havilland Queen Bee radio-controlled target drone, 6 June 1941. The Prime Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill, with Captain The Right Honourable David Margesson, Secretary of State for War, watching preparations being made in an unspecified UK location for the launch of a De Havilland Queen Bee seaplane L5984 from its ramp. The Queen Bee pilotless target drone was a radio-controlled version of the Tiger Moth trainer.

Written by: Peter Schott of Myriad Mobile

There was something about that day that felt like magic. I was at a field demonstration watching a fixed wing drone fly a set pattern across a field. “This is going to change everything,” I thought to myself. I had visions of every farmer owning one, gathering data that would have been otherwise impossible to obtain. Mountains of data being sent to the mystical cloud in the sky for analysis and processing. In-season decisions about fertilizer, pest management, and much more would be at each grower’s fingertips. (I make no apologies for the nerdiness of my daydreams.)

Companies like Peterson Farms Seed have been involved with UAS technology for many years, working with growers to find the best uses of technology. Nolan Berg, Precision Systems Specialist for Peterson Farms Seed predicts that in the future most growers will have a drone for scouting but will likely partner with other groups for large scale scanning. Companies have formed to meet this need like SkySkopes and FlightPros. Both exist to give companies peace of mind in this area, and rightly so. Keeping up with regulations, maintaining equipment, and safely operating UAS equipment require specialization and focus that is often best suited to hire.

You have one shot

As interest and adoption of this technology continue to grow, existing providers in the industry are looking for ways to bring it to their customers. RDO Equipment sees it as a natural fit into the tools they bring to the marketplace. “Farmers are busy. They are interested in UAS imagery and what it can do for their operation but oftentimes, don’t have the time to operate the drone.” Nate Dorsey, RDO Agronomist, recommends growers look at what tools their existing agronomist or service provider has, and how they can provide UAS imagery.

By providing the best tools (including education and training), RDO can be a trusted advisor for growers and service providers. Nate understands the importance of building and maintaining trust with growers. “When you work with farmers you have one shot to make a good impression.”

Smart Barley

Mature harvest golden rice

Anheuser-Busch is in early stages of using UAS imagery to analyze and predict protein levels of barley in-season, thereby helping growers make decisions for marketing and harvest. By predicting protein levels, growers can maximize contract values by harvesting barley with optimum protein levels first. This will allow people like Bill Jones, Anheuser-Busch Agronomist, to be an even more valuable partner for growers, while increasing the efficiency of the business, leading to better beer for us all!

What does this mean for agriculture?

Drones have shown great promise for the agriculture industry. $326M was raised in VC funding for ag drone technology in 2015, up 189% from 2014. Funding for this technology remains significant but has cooled off in 2016, dropping 68%. Clear leaders are starting to emerge as dominant players in the areas of UAS, image sensors, and data processing.

What to do with the data, however, is an unsettled but exciting prospect for the future. All of the improved image sensing, UAS hardware, and increased use industry-wide means that a mountain of data is forming. “Flying one field can collect over five gigs of data, and that’s just one flight of the field,” remarked Nolan Berg when reflecting on the processing needs.

Imagery collected by UAS: RBG, Satellite, NDVI

Variable rate application is the predominant use of the technology today. Growers are able to set field zones, and even make in-season decisions about nitrogen application using the data. In the future, data will be able to predict disease pressure, notify growers and their team of issues, and provide expertise on best practices that have been gleaned through machine learning. Until then, there will be many industry groups collecting data in fields, working with growers, dreaming of what is next.

Emerging Prairie