Drone Technology is the Latest Tool for the Agtech Industry

Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received a patent on May 27, 1843 for inventing the fax machine. Yet it took more than a hundred years later until fax machines became commonplace.

The main reason fax machines didn’t become popular far sooner was because it simply wasn’t practical to use fax machines over early telephone lines. Not only were early telephone systems expensive to use, especially for long distances, but it required human operators to connect you to another number. The fax machine could only work when the costs of making a call was both cheap and easy.

In the farming industry, soil sampling has been used for ages. By digging up different parts of a farm and analyzing the soil content, farmers can understand soil conditions around that land. The big drawback with soil sampling is that it takes time. If you could dig up samples from every square inch of a farm, you’d know its soil conditions perfectly, but that’s not practical because it’s so time-consuming.

To make soil sampling easier, farmers rarely examine all the soil on their land. Instead, they take representative samples from different parts of their land. This trades off time for accuracy, but in many cases it’s acceptable but not ideal. The ideal solution is to analyze all the soil, not just some of it.

That’s why drone technology is fast becoming the latest technological tool in the agriculture technology field. Like satellite imagery, drones can analyze an entire plot of land. Like soil sampling, drones can analyze soil content quickly and accurately.

There’s no doubt that technology, whether satellite imagery, soil sampling, or drone analysis, can help farmers. The two keys to adopting any technology is cost and convenience.

When new technology offers lower costs, many people will adopt it. When new technology offers greater convenience, many people will adopt it. When new technology can do both, everyone will adopt it.

Think back to the days of typewriters. For years, a typewriter was less expensive than a computer word processor. Yet many people willingly paid more to gain the advantages of word processing because it offered greater convenience. As soon as the cost of a personal computer dropped to the same cost of a typewriter, nobody wanted typewriters any more.

New technology always offers convenience but at a cost. When that cost becomes equal to current primitive technology, that’s when everyone adopts the newer technology en masse.

You can see the same trend occurring in the agriculture industry.

In the early days, satellite imagery was an expensive luxury reserved only for the biggest farms that could afford the cost. Everyone could see the advantages, but most farmers couldn’t afford the cost. When the cost of satellite imagery dropped, farmers readily adopted it.

Today, drone technology offers a supplemental technology to satellite imagery and soil sampling to provide real-time analysis of soil content. For some farmers, it may be too expensive, but to others, they can immediately see the benefits.

Yet it’s only a matter of time before the cost of drone technology drops to the point where every farmer can afford and use it just as every farmer currently takes advantage of personal computers. When the benefits greatly outweigh the cost, it only makes sense to use it.

Right now, you may think drone technology may be too expensive for your current needs, and you may be right. Just remember at one time, GPS tracking and weather forecasting were brand new technologies that many farmers didn’t use at first until the benefits far outweighed their costs.

The same is going to happen with drone technology. It may not happen today, it may not happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen sooner than you think.

The Uncertainty of Weather

What’s the best time to apply fertilizer? The right time. The trick is knowing when that right time might be.

In a perfect world, you would know exactly when to apply nutrients and exactly where to apply them. But as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, we live in a world where nothing stays the same and that especially includes the weather.

This year farmers had to worry about El Nino. Next year they might have to worry about La Nina. The following year? Who knows?

Chad Bell’s farm used to apply nitrogen every fall in one mass application. Yet after testing the soil’s nitrogen level, he discovered he didn’t need to apply extra fertilizer after all. The crops with extra nitrogen “didn’t show enough of a return to justify it, which was very surprising to me,” Chad said. “Every year is different. You’ve got to adapt and be flexible.”

With weather constantly changing soil conditions, it’s imperative that farmers know the precise conditions of their farm at all times. While it’s unrealistic to monitor soil conditions in real-time (yet), it’s also impractical to rely on satellite imagery and soil sampling alone to monitor nutrient content. That’s because satellite imagery can only capture snapshots of soil conditions and soil sampling can never capture conditions of an entire plot of land.

For accurate, up to date, and comprehensive analysis, many farmers are relying on drones that can analyze soil as often as necessary. Immediately after a storm or other harsh weather condition, a drone can quickly analyze nutrient content so farmers can determine exactly how recent weather may have changed soil conditions.

Just as you wouldn’t want to drive a car that shows you last week’s gas gauge, so you can’t afford to use outdated information to make the best decisions for applying nutrients to soil today. With drones, soil analysis can be done often and quickly. Drones represent just one more tool farmers can use to adapt to changing weather conditions.

The Coming Drone Revolution

In Rwanda, farmer Jean Pierre Nzabahimana used to plant his fields by scattering seed across his fields with his hands. The seedlings grew up in clumps and not surprisingly, the harvest rarely produced much. Today, Mr. Nzabahimana no longer relies on chance. Instead of scattering seed by hand, he plants crops in disciplined lines with military precision separated by precise distances. Applying scientific discipline to farming has enabled Mr. Nzabahimana to go from subsistence farming to profitable farming where he can grow enough food for himself and sell the excess to market.

That’s the difference between letting chance control your harvest and using the latest scientific methods to maximize your crop yield. While it’s easy to think that Rwanda farmers may lack technology and knowledge to grow crops efficiently, American farmers are no different if they willfully turn a blind eye to the latest farming technologies available to them.

While people read reports of drones used by the military or tested by Amazon to deliver packages, a new report from RnR Market Research states the largest market for drones could be worth nearly $3.7 billion by 2022. That market? The agriculture industry.

Today’s farmers rely on technology that farmers from a  generation ago could never dream about such as satellite imagery. Each new advance in agricultural technology simply gives farmers more information to plant crops more efficiently. Tomorrow’s farmers will likely rely on today’s methods along with drone technology.

Drones can hover above farmlands and monitor for pests, soil content, and crop yields in ways that sampling techniques can’t match. The future is obvious. Drones promise to revolutionize the agricultural industry as much as satellite imagery has given farmers a birds-eye view of their land that was never possible in the past. If you’re not looking for how to apply drones to maximize your crop yields, you’re risking obsolescence.

Drones aren’t necessarily replacing satellite imagery but supplementing them. Satellites images can give you a broad view of farmland, but drones promise to monitor field conditions, create fertilization maps, predict yields, and assess crop health on a more selective basis. A drone can scan just part of a farm far easier and faster than any satellite could ever do and analyze the land in much closer proximity as well. Drone technology isn’t just a new technology for the agricultural industry, but part of the future.

So don’t get left behind. Just as Rwandan farmer, Jean Pierre Nzabahimana, would never go back to hand planting his seeds after seeing the benefits of applying scientific methods to his harvest, so will tomorrow’s farmers never go back to growing crops without drone technology. Drones are not only coming, but here to stay and the agricultural industry stands to benefit from the growing capabilities of drones today and in the far future.

Nutrient Mining

When the Native Americans grew corn, they buried fish heads at the base of each plant because they knew the soil needed nutrients to replenish the soil. As simple as that might sound, that’s the basis for soil nutrient mining.

Every farmer knows that you can’t endlessly plant crops on the same land. That’s why farmers often rotate crops or allow the land to lie fallow. Each time you plant crops, the crops take nutrients out of the soil. The only way to replenish the land is to put additional nutrients back into the ground.

The simplest way to do this is by applying fertilizer. On small farms, this can be as simple as collecting manure but on larger farms, this isn’t usually practical. In those cases, farms must purchase additional fertilizer. The problem lies in knowing where to apply fertilizer and in the proper amounts.

In a backyard garden, it’s easy to monitor plants individually, but on even the smallest farm, it’s simply not practical to monitor plants on such a one-on-one basis. Soil sampling can help you understand nutrient conditions in various areas and satellite imaging can also identify broad conditions of a plot of land. However, the ideal situation would be to know not only where to apply fertilizer to replenish the soil with nutrients, but also knowing how much to apply.

That’s where drone technology can help. Like satellites, drones can quickly map a large area. Yet like soil sampling, drones are close enough to the ground to detect minute changes in nutrient density to pinpoint exactly which areas need more nutrients and how much they might need. By properly applying nutrients, farmers can not only avoid applying too much (which costs money), but also avoid nutrient runoff that pollutes the environment. Applying too much fertilizer is literally flushing money down the drain.

Drone technology isn’t necessarily a replacement for soil sampling or satellite imagery but just another tool to help farmers better analyze the conditions of their farmland. At one time, farmers viewed satellite imagery as a high-tech luxury. Today it’s virtually a necessity for any large scale farm. Right now, drone technology may seem like a high-tech luxury but like satellite imagery, one day it will become commonplace. The only question is how soon will you want to take advantage of this technology?

FAA Proposal to Regulate Drones

Amazon plans to use drones to deliver packages right to your door. Amateur and professional filmmakers want to use drones to provide a new way to capture action from angles not possible before. Even the Dallas Cowboys want to use drones to film their practices. However, all of this would have been illegal until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally passed regulations allowing the use of drones in public areas.

Recently, the FAA has proposed a framework for the routine use of drones for non-recreational purposes. All drone flights must be limited to daytime and maintain a visual line of sight with the operator. In addition there will also be certain heist restrictions, operator certification, and aircraft registration. More importantly, the latest FAA proposal would allow a drone operator to optionally work with a separate observer who can maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft.

While these proposed regulations may not be final, they do point to the future where drone use will become routine and commonplace. That means you can expect to see more drone use in various industries including agriculture.

Drones won’t necessarily replace current practices and technology so much as they’ll supplement them. After all, filmmakers won’t suddenly abandon traditional cameramen in favor of drones. Likewise, the agriculture industry won’t suddenly abandon satellite imagery and soil sampling and replace them with drones.

What industries will do is find ways to use drones creatively to perform tasks not easily done or even impossible to achieve using current technology. The drone revolution is coming to every industry. Just like the early days of personal computers where early adopters were rewarded with greater efficiency and productivity, so will early adopters of drone technology receive similar benefits.

Just as PCs gradually became indispensable in practically every industry, expect drone technology to become just as critical in practically every industry. If you’re not preparing to use drones in your business, someone else will and that means they’ll have an advantage that you won’t have.

Drones are part of the future. The sooner you find ways to take advantage of the coming drone revolution, the sooner you can start deriving benefits as a result. After all, look how handicapped people are today if they don’t know how to use a PC. Now imagine how far behind you could be if you fail to adopt the latest technologies like drones in your industry.

Weighing The Cost Of Data Vs. Privacy

If you’ve ever used a search engine like Google or Bing, you may not realize you’re giving up some of your privacy every time you search. That’s because companies like Google and Microsoft track your activities to better determine which types of ads and search results to show you. The loss of your privacy is the price you pay for getting better search results and more relevant ads.

This same idea of data mining occurs with farmers as well. By using precision technologies that collect weather data, track seed varieties, analyze nutrient applications and map crop yields, farmers can reduce the cost of seed, fertilizer and pesticides by an average of 15 percent, and increase crop yields by an average of 13 percent. Not surprisingly, many farmers plan to invest in new or additional precision and data technology in the next year or two.

But just like the loss of privacy when using search engines like Google or Bing, there’s also the potential loss of privacy when using the latest agricultural technologies that collect data. According to the latest survey by American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), fully 77.5 percent of farmers fear regulators and other government officials might gain access to their private information without their knowledge or permission. Nearly 76 percent of respondents said they were concerned others could use their information for commodity market speculation without their consent.

“We want to be sure that farmers’ and ranchers’ data are protected, and we’re asking the hard questions to make sure that happens,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said. “Farmers should know who owns their data and how they plan to use it. It’s up to companies that collect the data to make all that clear.” Farmers overwhelmingly agree: More than 81 percent believe they retain ownership of their farm data, according to Farm Bureau. Yet, it’s still unclear to most (more than 82 percent) how companies intend to use the farmers’ data.

“Agriculture technology providers must be diligent in protecting farmers’ data and transparent in their contracts about how their data will be used,” AFBF’s Stallman said.

Precision technologies work precisely because they collect so much data, but it’s important that you remain aware of what data others might collect from you and how they might use it without your knowledge or permission.

Why Does Nitrogen Fertilizer Cost So Much?

Eighty percent of the atmosphere consists of nitrogen. Unfortunately, nitrogen in the atmosphere can’t be used by plants. In nature, bacteria can convert nitrogen into a form that plants can use, but when growing crops, you can’t rely on bacteria to create enough nitrogen. That’s why you need fertilizer and one of the primary ingredients needed to make nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas.

In 1910, scientists discovered that if you combined natural gas with the atmosphere at a high temperature (about 900 degrees Fahrenheit) and under a high pressure (between 2,900 – 14,700 pounds per square inch), you could create anhydrous ammonia gas, which is called the Claude-Haber ammonia synthesis process. So the price of nitrogen fertilizer is directly based on the price of natural gas.

Even if natural gas prices remain low, competition for nitrogen fertilizer continues to rise throughout the world. Many parts of Asia need to increase food production for their growing population, which puts them in direct competition for nitrogen fertilizer needs around the rest of the world. The law of supply and demand takes over because if demand is high and supplies cannot keep up with demand, then prices will rise.

Now combine transportation costs (which requires fuel) and you get another component that keeps nitrogen fertilizer prices high. In short, nitrogen fertilizer costs so much because it relies on natural gas, worldwide supply and demand, and transportation costs that depend on the price of oil.

Farmers have no choice but to continue using nitrogen fertilizer to grow crops, so it’s important not to apply more fertilizer than you need and apply fertilizer only to those areas that actually need it. That’s where precision farming technologies can help.

Instead of relying on time-consuming soil samples, precision technologies such as satellites and drones, can analyze soil nutrient content quickly and accurately. This creates a prescriptive map that pinpoints exactly which areas need more fertilizer and which areas do not. The end result is a cost savings in applying nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently so you grow more crops with less waste.

If the cost of nitrogen fertilizer keeps rising, you can rely on precision techniques to lower your costs without hurting crop yields. The price of nitrogen fertilizer won’t likely go down in the future, but with precision technologies, you may find you can use less nitrogen and still increase crop yields, which means increasing profits as well.