Four JAGUAR forage harvesters in the field

Get in on the ground floor as drone use skyrockets

We hate droning on about unmanned aerial vehicles and their places in agriculture, but it’s an increasingly important topic to everyone in ag. Why is it so important? Because personal drones are everywhere. Tech that seemed like sci-fi just five years ago is in the hands of everyone today. You probably had one under the tree this last Christmas. So did your kids. Maybe even your dog got one!

Even with the threat of increased federal regulation, consumer drone sales have exploded in just a few years, multiplying 30 times (!) since 2013, according to Business Insider. Whereas a private drone used to be the domain of professional photographers with a high level of RC know-how, today you can buy them at Sharper Image or even Toys R Us. And the applications are endless. You can race them. You can play with them.  You can use them for high-end video and photography.

But they’re not just toys or high-flying cameras for private use. Commercial application of drone tech (now we’re talking!) is coming at us fast and furious. More companies are finding business opportunities for drones, from translating data and analytics captured by multi-rotored robotic reconnaissance to  door-to-door package delivery. Companies are harnessing the power of the drone, and when that happens, you can expect the tech to make leaps and bounds.

When it comes to flying around the farm, there are obvious applications for drones already. Monitoring crop growth, wrangling animals, checking irrigation and pest issues…the possibilities are sky high. But for drones to really become integrated on the ag scene as tightly as they are in the photography or inventory industries,  one issue may have to be taken out of the equation: Manpower.

On any farming operation, margins are always a concern. The difference between the red and the black can be a single thunderstorm in April, right? So anywhere you can squeeze some efficiency and/or dollars out of a situation, you’ll do so. Drone technology sounds great on a farm; you can literally see the bigger picture and plan accordingly, no matter what the situation. The problem is that in most cases, you need someone to fly that drone. And if you want an experienced pilot who can be useful to your operation, that can cost more than $100 per hour. Manpower costs money. Drones cost money. Combine the two, and the potential cost can send producers scurrying away.

But what if you can save, say, $168 an hour on drone pilots? Autonomous drones are becoming a viable option, according to Agfunder News. Whereas it might be too expensive and illogical to keep a dedicated drone pilot on hand, what if you could “employ” an unmanned drone that could charge itself, do its job, upload its data and re-dock, all without a pilot? That time is coming, and sooner than you might think. At the moment, cost and federal regulations prevent pilotless drones from becoming more prevalent, but remember that it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of a personal drone at all seemed like something from Blade Runner. Technology comes at you fast. Will you be ready?

Droning on

As always, we circle back to what this whirlwind of drone talk means for ag marketers. If farmers are using them, if children are using them…surely there’s a way we can put them to work in our business. We have three ways you can use drone technology to soar in the field. And above it.

Show, don’t tell

Drones can be great for showing off your products or services. HD and 4K video is now the norm when it comes to video and photography, so capturing beautiful images of your products at work in the fields (and, if you have enough altitude, maybe even a little compare and contrast with neighboring fields) is as easy as heading to heading to the mall. They’ll never replace a professional video crew for showing off your wares, but a reasonably priced photography drone can meet a lot of your “beauty” needs pretty easily.

CLAAS of America used a drone to showcase products at work for Franken Custom Inc. in South Dakota.

Show and tell

Use your drone to communicate with your audiences. You can’t film fieldwork in a studio, so producing how-to guides (especially when you’re dealing with pesticides or other large-scale applications) can be tricky. But if you take to the skies, you can supplement your videos or print materials with high-end photography that shows off the scope of the operation or gives a more “global” look at what your products can do. Again, no film crew required. Look at all of your current materials, no matter the purpose or medium. Can a bigger-picture view enhance them and make it easier for customers to absorb information? You’ll find that the answer is almost always “yes.”

Partner up, up and away

Drone manufacturers need exposure, too! If you find yourself using a particular make and model of drone, it can’t hurt to reach out to your favorite company and see if they want to combine forces. Every brand needs a portfolio, and if you’re using their products effectively, the company might be willing to get into a quid-pro-quo situation. On the flip side, if you find yourself needing drone technology that doesn’t yet exist, you might find a progressive manufacturer that will partner up. If no one ever asked for it, would we have a drone with an aerial thermal sensor specifically for monitoring irrigation needs? Probably not.

The future is already in the past

We know that drones are the wave of the future in ag and ag marketing. There’s not even a doubt at this point. How can we be so confident? Go into your company storeroom and find a computer monitor from, say, eight years ago. Go home and find your cell phone from 2005. Look at camera equipment from ten years ago on eBay. If there is one certainty in life, it’s that once technology is created, it only gets better and more prevalent. Drone use in ag isn’t brand new by technology standards, but it is an industry that is still feeling its way.

If you get in on it now, maybe you can help guide it.