Our most recent newsletter highlighted the burgeoning market for agricultural drones, outlining their applications for precision agriculture, mapping/surveying, and crop dusting/spraying. There has been a proliferation of drone manufacturing businesses and geospatial analytic drone software that seek to provide “actionable intelligence” to farmers and agronomers, attracting huge interest from tech-focused investors and accelerators.
While this sector offers interesting opportunities for digital farming and the potential to advise and simplify agronomy decisions, it remains hindered by both hardware and software constraints. This newsletter will explore the challenges and opportunities for agricultural drones and tries to answer the question of how tech can effectively help the farmer with a real solution that adds real value.
In addition to the existing gap between the actual farmer and the non-actionable information provided by drone companies, a number of other challenges exist to the adoption of UAVs and its surrounding technologies into agricultural application. These fall under the categories of hardware, software and legislative constraints.
Like most newly-adopted commercial technologies, UAVs are currently limited by some basic hardware constraints such as poor battery life, weather dependency and the expensive cost of deployment. Most UAVs on the market have a flight time of between 15 and 60 mins, which can only cover an area of 30-90 hectares. This means there are limits to acreage for every charge, and multiple flights may be required to capture full-scale data. UAVs are also largely weather-dependent, and many cannot fly in rainy and cloudy conditions. Moreover, technology-aided farming can be very costly, with sensor-inclusive UAVs on the market costing up to $25,000. Along with this financial barrier, some farmers are disillusioned with the tech-heavy nature of UAVs and are thus hesitant to adopt them into their practices.
On the software front, companies are now faced with the challenges of big data: how to collect it, then sort it into actionable advice for farmers and agronomists. UAVs are capable of producing a multitude of images ranging from video, 3-band, 5-band, lidar, thermal and hyperspectral, each offering a unique insight into crop and animal numbers and health. However, while there has been a proliferation of hyperspectral imaging and sensor technology, large amounts of captured information is useless unless it can be interpreted by farmers. This poses challenges to the adoption of UAV technologies, but creates an inviting opportunity for businesses to create integrated software platforms and create synergies between software producers, consultants and farmers. However, while many start-ups are producing analytic services and utilising cloud processing, predictive analytics and intuitive reports, many of these are only compatible with some UAV software. Currently companies remain relatively undifferentiated in terms of their UAV service provision. Saying this, there is ample space for start-ups to gain competitive advantage through creating well-integrated and compatible software.
The legislative atmosphere of UAVs for commercial purposes is proving to be challenging for farmers. Across most countries UAV pilots require licences and vehicle certification which can be both administrative and time cost-intensive. UAVs are also required to comply to a range of regulations that limit their use in controlled airspaces and populated areas. However, UAV regulations seem to be liberalising as their use is becoming more frequent for commercial purposes, and responsibility for compliance is likely to shift to UAV service providers.
While a number of challenges to UAVs in agriculture exist, overwhelming evidence suggests that UAVs will play an integral role in the future of farming. As mentioned in the last newsletter, farmers need actionable information that actually helps them and equips them with real insight and adequate solutions. Here are the opportunities that we see for agridrones in the near future.
Is there a way to close the gap between farmers and tech?
The industry presents ample opportunity for UAV manufacturing, software and consulting businesses to align their goals to capture and filter data more efficiently, and present it in a user-friendly and actionable manner. As such, there has been a spike in the number of start-ups now offering imaging services, sensor-based technology, geospatial analytic and consulting services.
How to solve the hardware constraints?
With the growth of a sector comes niche opportunities. In regards to hardware constraints, businesses and start-ups are already responding. Airnest and Skysense offer portable charging and storage stations that answer the battery life issue. Many start-ups are offering better-calibrated sensor technologies that are exponentially improving time and cost-efficiency of flight times. Start-ups are developing their own state-of-the-art cameras with hyperspectral and multispectral imaging techniques along with the supporting technology necessary to interpret the images. These technologies are only expected to improve on an upward trajectory. Leading the way in weather-resilient hardware is Alpha Industrial Drones and Microdrones, with some of the latest UAVs being constructed using carbon fibre materials and utilising innovative designs and manufacturing techniques. As such, there are unique opportunities for start-ups where competitive advantages can be formed on innovative technologies: types and quality of imaging, sensor technology, and businesses working with composite materials, design, and manufacturing of UAVs.
AI is also entering the drone market
The software side of UAVs also offers promising opportunity. There has been rapid growth in geospatial analytic services that deploy customisable algorithms to make data useful, presenting a ripe landscape for integrated data platforms. Start-ups are now utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI) for sensing and optimised decision-making and learnings in object recognition and classification. AI is also being deployed using machine-learning algorithms to identify specific problem areas, causes of problems, and predictions on crop yields. Leading the way in AI software development is Cape Town-based start-up, Aerobotics. Nicholas Coles, software lead, explains that Aerobotics is now focusing on machine learning algorithms and a mobile application which allows farmers to “add ground-level, GPS referenced information, for example, log pests and diseases and add photographs to help give context to the aerial imagery. This helps close the loop, in allowing farmers to action the data.” Such interfacing offers a temporal outlook on agriculture where the collection of airborne and space-borne hyperspectral imaging data of fields, along with corresponding historical climate and weather records is producing detailed information on crop phenology and physiological traits. This data is being complied to produce detailed maps that characterise specific agronomic issues such as nutrient deficiencies, disease infections and pest and weed infestations.
To alleviate legislative constraints for farmers operating UAVs, service providers such as Agrobotix are now offering all-inclusive flight packages and providing targeted and tailored recommendations for optimum management.
The gap can be closed
All in all, the business for agridrones is about to take off. Initial problems have been addressed and many services that add great value to farmers and agronomists alike. Currently there is no real market leader that stands out of the mass. This being said, it will be extremely interesting to see which company will manage to integrate essential solutions to the above mentioned problem areas the best over the next 2-3 years.