Firm zeroes in on next big market for drone technology: agriculture

Andrew Carson is wrapping up a presentation to a group of agriculture researchers when the question comes from the floor: “What is the next big growth area for drones?”

The answer: agriculture.

“It’s pretty simple economics when you look at it,” Carson says in a later interview.

“There’s a lot of land to cover and the specific sensors that can be used can enable the farmer, agronomist or people interested in the health and stress of the crops — it can really benefit them.”

Carson is sales lead for Draganfly Innovations, a Saskatoon-based manufacturer of drones. With more than 20 years in the industry, the company is the longest-running manufacturer of multi-rotor remote-control helicopters in the world.

Draganfly provides aerial platforms for imaging, software support and expertise on conforming to Transport Canada regulations. The aim is to capture data and turn it into information that producers can use to make decisions on everything from seeding and fertilizer rates to pest and disease management.

The company even has one of its drones in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for being the first in the world to save a human life. In 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used a Draganflyer system to find a disoriented driver who had wandered away from a single-vehicle rollover accident in subzero temperatures.

Drones are now proving their worth in agriculture. Here, they provide a platform for sophisticated cameras and imaging equipment for producers and field researchers.

Steve Shirtliffe is one of those researchers. An agronomist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, he and his colleagues use drones to capture high-resolution images of crops such as canola, wheat and lentils.

From anywhere up to 400 feet above ground level, drones cover hundreds of metre-by-metre research plots. This perspective reveals when crops are flowering and for how long, how many heads develop and their size, and how quickly the crop canopy fills in to successfully compete with weeds. Drones can fly the same patterns to build a week-by-week visual story of how the crops develop throughout the growing season.

It is invaluable knowledge over the long term in developing improved crop varieties, but Shirtliffe says producers and agronomists are already finding value in drones to monitor crops for disease and pests. They’re even developing their own techniques, such as flying into the setting sun close to a crop to spot wheat midge.

“You can access areas of the field that you can’t get to on foot,” he says.

“It can help you gather enough information to decide whether to spray or not.”

A downside to drones is that battery life limits their range and payload, something Carson says can be improved by going to a fixed-wing drone that resembles a small airplane rather than a multi-rotor helicopter.

One such drone that Draganfly offers — the AeroVironment Quantix — takes off and lands vertically and can cover 400 acres in its 45-minute flight time. Fully programmable, it can be flown with a few finger swipes on a tablet computer.

While any farmer can use drones, Carson says what to buy and how to use it is affected by a wide range of factors:

  • What is the producer is trying to accomplish?
  • What is the size and location of their operations? (This determines the airspace they would be operating in and the training required.)
  • What about hardware? Simple field scouting can be done with a small, inexpensive multi-rotor, but complete mapping dictates a high-endurance fixed-wing drone.

With so many details involved, Carson starts with a detailed conversation.

“At Draganfly, what we do well is understand drone technology, the regulatory environment and how to apply this technology,” he says.

“We understand how to integrate this type of technology with your workflow so you can collect the information that you need to make more informed decisions.”

While drones are becoming more established as farmers’ and researchers’ eyes in the sky for crop management, Daniel McCann, chief executive officer of Precision.ai in Regina, is looking well beyond imaging to actual application of crop protection products.

Imagine a swarm of drones flying over a field, each with on-board artificial intelligence capable of recognizing individual weeds and delivering a spritz of herbicide. This would dramatically decrease spray costs and farm labour, increase safety and reduce pressure on the environment. It could also avoid the large capital expense of systems based on heavy field equipment.

“What we would end up doing is have fully autonomous drones to go out and spray the field on their own without the huge overhead of having to invest in one of those giant systems,” McCann says.

Of course, with current drone technology and flight times measured in minutes, this becomes challenging at Saskatchewan farm scales. However, while McCann plays the proprietary details close to the vest, he believes Precision.ai can harness artificial intelligence to deliver a solution.

“If you’re using the type of intelligence that we have, you can actually make decisions at the per-plant level of precision instead of the per-acre level of precision,” he says.

“So it’s a dramatic, dramatic reduction in spray costs. That’s an immediate benefit to the farmer.”

Ultimately, McCann envisions autonomous drones able to handle all aspects of farming, including seeding and fertilizer application. Ground-based autonomous systems are already coming on-stream, as are smart sprayers that open and close nozzles when they detect pests. It’s all about saving farmers time so they can focus on managing their fields and business.

“Everyone else seems to be focusing on the imaging and information gathering,” McCann says.

“We’re one of only a handful of companies, particularly in North America, trying to do the actionable — to create something that will actually save the farmer time and money as opposed to just provide information.”

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