The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture

Over the past few years, the press has emphasized how much commercial drones will be used to improve farming. The assumption is that drones provide more accurate data for use in variable rate technology (VRT) so farmers who use drones will experience increased yields.  But truth be told very little has been written about the measurable benefits and it’s yet to be proven just how effective UAS will be in helping farmers increase yields. With that in mind we just released The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, a free research study that reviews those benefits and challenges.

The report is the first in series of studies sponsored by BZ Media that looks objectively at each major market for drones and drone technology. In this paper, we look at how drones have been used as remote sensing devices in agriculture thus far, review competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discuss the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself, outline the lessons learned, and discuss what’s next for drones in agriculture. Here is an excerpt:

“For the most part, recent technology advancements in small UAS equipped with good sensors support the farmer’s and/or researcher’s ability to locate a precise position in a field, observe it, and create maps of as many variables as can be measured — but only on a small scale. That’s because under current FAA rules, all observation and measurement would have to be done by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. The problem is that fields and farms are big– bigger than VLOS.  According to this report, there are approximately 2.1 million farms in America.  The average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 percent of farms.  That’s 1.85 million farms that could benefit immediately from VLOS operations.  But large family farms (averaging 1,421 acres) and very large family farms (averaging 2,086 acres) make up 36 percent of the total farm acres in the U.S., so most of that would require beyond VLOS operations.

Sure, operators could conduct many operations in a day by moving section to section to section and stitching together larger maps for large or very large acre farms, but this is costly – both in terms of manpower and time. Even if it was cheaper, the market potential for drones in precision agriculture still needs more vetting. Despite the ROI studies like this one by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Measure, it’s not yet clear how a sUAS can deliver more usable data to a farmer or provide a cost benefit over the existing manned aircraft or the satellite image solutions available to them today.”

The paper goes on to analyze six use cases for drones in agriculture in great detail – including using drones for crop vigor assessment and the use of prescription maps. You can find out more about the report and download for free it here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me

Image credit: Colby AgTech

Market Impact of the FAA Small Drone Rule

Barriers to entry are lower, but high margin operations are still restricted.


By now you probably know that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has finally released Part 107, the Small UAS Rule (June 21, 2016), which covers operational use of commercial drones in U.S. airspace. This comes after several years of missed deadlines. You can read the FAA’s own summary of the ruling here. What’s important to note is these rules won’t be implemented until late August 2016.


There’s not much difference between what was proposed in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in February, 2015 and the final rule. In a nutshell, the new U.S. rule is a one-size-fits-all approach that allows commercial operators to fly drones that weigh 55 lbs. or less within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only and without obtaining a pilot’s license but with the requirement that they pass a test.

Our initial February 2015 economic assessment of the NPRM FAA Proposed Drone Rules: Market Opportunity Winners and Losers looked at the business impact and market opportunities the proposed VLOS rules would have for drone manufacturers, distributors, service providers, and investors.  Having read the newly issued Part 107, we stand by our earlier assessment and summarize it here:

  • Precision Agriculture – Winner and Loser

Demand for turnkey drone systems will increase as farmers and service providers work within the rule constraints.  However, the big caveat is drone usage alone will not “transform agriculture” just yet.  For that, we would need to see a change in the adoption rate for variable rate technology (such as applicators) — which is currently down.  Read our in-depth review The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture.

  • Inspection / Monitoring – Big Winner

Demand for and use of drones (especially multirotors) dedicated to asset and infrastructure inspection will see a big uptick. The new rule allows you to fly higher than 400 feet above ground level (AGL) if you stay within 400 feet of a structure (such as a 1000-foot tower), so energy, utilities, and telecommunications infrastructure stand to benefit. The rub is you can’t do night operations. So, roof inspections with a thermal camera is limited to almost useless daytime operations.

  • Mapping / Surveying – Winner and Loser

The surveying industry has the most to gain here. The door is wide open for drone operations like stockpile measurement and small open pit mine mapping.  The door is also open for laser scanning, 3D imaging capture, and data processing that architectural engineering firms can consume.  As such, there are new opportunities for dedicated and differentiated cloud-based in-memory processing data services.

  • Film / Photo / Video – Big Winner

Drones have already created new sources of demand for aerial photography, and this will continue in earnest. As with land-based photography, the financial and technical barriers to entry are low, making it easy for businesses to begin offering sUAS-based film and photography services. Now that the regulatory hurdle is low, expect aircraft vendors and specialty retailers to flourish, too.

  • Public Safety / First Responders – Uncertain

Under the proposed rules, demand for turnkey drone solutions and services for police, fire, and emergency medical services is uncertain. Operations at night – perhaps when they are needed the most – are restricted. Technology adoption by fire and rescue may be good, but adoption by local and state police agencies will no doubt be fraught with continued controversy over privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. For more information I recommend you read 3 Things Public Safety Officials Should Know about Drones.


A lot can be said about how drone leaders and service providers underestimate the power of competitive incumbent technologies (like satellite and manned aircraft). But there is one type of competition in the commercial drone space that doesn’t get talked about a lot, and it’s this: Now that Part 107 has been released, it will lower the barrier to entry for new drone pilots and service providers.

In theories of economic competition, barriers to entry are obstacles that make it difficult to enter a given market. Since the rules have come in as proposed—that is, with no pilot’s license required for the operator—then the barrier to entry for commercial drone services just got lowered.  It’s only natural that we’ll see an uptick of new entrants (they just have to take a test) and we’ll see downward price pressure for services offered.

We see this as a major disruption to the drone service provider market and those already operating under a Section 333 exemption.  These firms will suddenly face more competition, whether their business is real estate photography or infrastructure inspection. There simply will be more drone pilots and more drone service providers, and with that the law of demand and supply kicks in. The more supply you have, the lower prices go.


Markets and businesses love regulation clarity – and with Part 107 we now have that.  But we are far away from an inflection point of “drones taking off” — if there is one. The inability to fly over people or beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) restricts some high-margin operations. Because of this, in one sense we have reached a plateau. This rule took a total of 10 years to get. No one knows how long the next one will take.

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QuickTake: Hivemapper’s 3D Earth Maps for Drones App

It’s innovative, but will companies embed it for their mission control?


Last week Hivemapper introduced its 3D earth maps Android app for drones. The preview I received a week earlier was impressive. Hivemapper is a mapping and navigation tool for drone operators to fly more safely and plan missions with awareness of the exact height and 3D footprint of buildings, trees, poles and other structures. Features include:

  • intelligent altitude (drone’s true height above bare earth),
  • an in-flight 3D map with collision avoidance alerts that provides distance to 3D objects,
  • and the ability to do quick object surveys.

The product has been in development since 2015 and was built using the DJI SDK – so it currently works only for DJI Phantoms and Inspire 1 drones.


Product features go way beyond what you find in Google Maps, Google Earth, and intelligent no-fly zone map programs like Airmap or Mapbox. Two things make Hivemapper innovative:

  1. The object point cloud information already contained in their maps—like building, trees, and power line locations and dimensions—boasts centimeter-level accuracy from 6 trillion points with 100% of the US coverage for Intelligent altitude and 60% for 3D objects with more to come.
  2. The second innovation is the ability to collect and add new data from users with an in-app object survey tool. The tool works like a count-down game. As drones circle an object, slices of a pie disappear until none are left. This means the data is complete and can be sent back to crowdsource-update the centralized map for future use.

Other drone app and software developers should make note that Hivemapper has tapped into two very important development techniques: crowdsourcing and gamification. Original data has been captured by existing users’ drones, but ongoing the game design element fosters engagement that supports further data capture.


To be clear, Hivemapper is not alone in their quest to “build a better mouse trap” map for drones. Angel funded Point One Navigation is on a quest to provide a similar ultra-precise location service. But the big question is whether drone mission planning and ground control vendors like 3DR, DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk, senseFly, UgCS, and even DJI GEO will embed Hivemapper. I believe the use case is compelling. If you don’t understand where a drone is located in all three dimensions then having no-fly zones and 400 foot maximum height limits is pointless in many parts of the U.S. Hivemapper provides those features plus ones the others don’t have—like route planning around objects of unknown height and dimension, route validation, and a much better return home safety route than is provided by simple onboard object avoidance technology.


Watch this space—the market for maps and apps that give operators awareness of what they could collide – which is heating up. And Hivemapper has a leg up because of their unique and compelling approach with its crowdsourced gamification.

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