U.S. Farmers to Analyze Value of Using Drones

By Catherine Boudreau

July 20 — The average U.S. corn farmer could reap an extra $12 per acre by using drone services to diagnose diseases, detect flooding and target weeds, according to a new study.

Soybean and wheat growers also may see a more than $2 per acre return on investment if they purchase the crop-scouting technology, researchers from Informa Economics, Inc. found in a study commissioned by Measure, a Drone as a Service company.

“There's been a lot of hype surrounding what drones can do, but no one had gone about quantifying the value drones can bring to precision agriculture in terms of added revenue or cost savings,” David Bowen, a senior analyst at Measure, told Bloomberg BNA. “Farmers have been waiting to see the business case made that drones can benefit their operation.”

On July 21, Measure, in partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), will formally announce the study, which includes a return-on-investment (ROI) calculator for farmers and agribusiness.

The web-based tool will be available within the next few weeks, initially for corn, soybean and wheat growers that can submit historic data such as yields and input costs. Based on those numbers, the ROI calculator will estimate likely yield increases and cost savings from hiring a drone service such as Measure, as opposed to farmers purchasing their own drone system.

In addition to crop scouting, the ROI calculator can estimate the benefits of 3D terrain mapping, which is useful for farmers facing drainage problems in fields.

The tool is most useful to producers in states such as Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota, but Bowen said Measure plans to expand the tool to more geographic regions and crops in the future, such as high-value fruits and vegetables.

Drone, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), technology also can be used by crop insurance companies to evaluate losses and reduce inaccurate or fraudulent claims.

For example, Archer Daniels Midland Co. Crop Risk Services in April received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones to expedite and improve claims processing.

“This technology is still in its infancy and I expect it will balloon beyond the commodities and uses in the study,” R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the AFBF, said. Karney noted that, as the FAA regulatory environment changes, technology is expected to evolve.

FAA Regulation 

The FAA currently approves commercial use of drones on a case-by-case basis, requiring operators to obtain a private pilot's license or have experience controlling manned aircraft, among other stipulations. Measure has two applications in the pipeline to operate its own drones, Bowen said.

Under a proposed rule in February, the agency laid out a framework for drones weighing 55 pounds or less that would have to remain within the operator's line of sight and not be flown over people, other than those involved with the flight. Further, drone operators would have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and have an FAA UAS operator certificate. That rule likely won't be finalized until Fall 2016 or later.

Bowen said, as data analytics improve, drones sensors could help farmers manage inputs such as nitrogen and herbicides, which can prevent runoff and have a positive impact on the environment, as well as aid in crop forecasting.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimates that drones represent a roughly $82 billion economic opportunity during the first 10 years after the FAA proposal is finalized, and that agriculture would account for 80 percent of that amount.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Boudreau in Washington at cboudreau@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com