For years now, drone advocates have cited precision agriculture—crop management that uses GPS and big data—as a way to boost crop yields and profits while resolving water and food crises. Unfortunately, for all the hype surrounding the concept drones haven't had a significant impact on the agriculture business, at least, until now.
With the debut of the Federal Aviation Administration's Section 333 exemption (which permits companies to fly drones commercially on a case-by-case basis) in November that's poised to change, particularly in the United States. For the first time agriculture drones will legally be able to gather widespread data across an entire growing season, allowing companies to test their business models and technologies together for the first time—and ideally make a profit in the process.
“This is the first year we’ll actually be able to see, by the time the growing season is over, the impact on the farmer and the impact of the quality of the grapes,” says David Baeza, whose precision agriculture startup Vine Rangers uses drones and ground robots to gather data on vineyard crops.We’re really excited about that.”
Before the F.A.A. began offering permits for commercial drones, companies like Vine Rangers couldn’t charge farming operations for their services, which meant they were often relegated to working with farms (often smaller independent ones) on exploratory pilot programs.
The shift in regulatory policy will now allow Vine Rangers and other certified firms—many of which are in the startup phase—to assist both large and small farming operations with water and disease management, and charge for the services. They'll also be able to use drones to help with better planting and crop rotation strategies, and provide a higher degree of all-around knowledge of how crops are progressing day-to-day in different parts of a given field.
This boost in crop intelligence should make farms more efficient and help smaller operations compete with their more well-heeled Big Agriculture competitors. More importantly, companies can now test their business models and develop new revenue streams, as well as attract new investment.
“We can actually move companies from pilot program to paid,” Baeza says about revenue possibilities that now exist for companies like his. The startup currently has two clients–both vineyards–in California’s Central Valley and working to expand its operations to other wine growing regions. “The biggest part about getting paid is obviously bringing in revenue,” he says. “But now we can test the parameters of the business model as well.”
Revenue will be key for drone agriculture startups—most of which currently focus on smaller specialty crops like grapes and avocados over row crops like corn or other grains–as they prepare their businesses as and aim to grab market share in a space analysts expect to grow exponentially in the years ahead. A widely-cited drone report released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that the legalization of commercial drones will create more than $80 billion in economic impact (such as revenue, job creation) between 2015 and 2025, and that precision agriculture will provide the biggest piece of that growth.
Startups like Vine Rangers are honing their drone technologies on specialty crops for now, but eventually will move into large-scale farms, which are bigger and require more resources to cover, Baeza says. As such, the advent of all these technologies will impact both small and international companies, though exactly how that will unfold remains to be seen.
“The biggest thing to watch is what’s going to happen to giants like Monsanto,” Baeza says. “How you define this market is changing, and the incumbents are in for a battle.”