January 27, 2016      

The automation of agriculture continues to grow alongside advances in computer vision and data processing, with particular progress of late involving drones for aerial surveying and robots that weed vegetable crops.

Most of the recent excitement among U.S. farmers has centered on using drone-gathered crop images to enable decision-making, said R.J. Karney, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“The current focus is how we can adopt and find a complementary tool for using drones in precision agriculture techniques. It’s still in its infancy,” Karney said. “Precision agriculture” is the term used for systems that farmers use data to maximize yields while reducing water, fertilizer, and pesticide use.

Swarms of UAVs could gather data for analytics as part of the industrial Internet of Things (IoT), enabling farmers to manage resources more efficiently, according to Vijay Kumar, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

For instance, MIT Media Lab researcher Caleb Harper is working on a “plant data center” for indoor urban agriculture. Identifying the location and characteristics of each broccoli plant would allow for precise controls, even on a smaller scale.

Innovation and demand for such services are likely to increase dramatically this year, especially if the Federal Aviation Administration enacts regulations allowing more commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Activity is already spiking, however, as the agency has issued hundreds of licenses on a provisional basis.

Drone deals anticipate demand

This month, Boulder, Colo.-based Agribotix LLC — a 3-year-old, 20-person startup that specializes in aerial data processing for farmers — announced a deal to sell its cloud-based drone data-capturing system through Hawkins Manufacturing Inc.’s network of 567 dealers in 33 states.

Hawkins Manufacturing will distribute Agribotix's drone systems nationwide.

Agribotix’s turnkey system combines drone data-gathering and cloud data analytics.

That followed a similar deal with giant equipment seller AGCO Corp. to bundle Agribotix’s software with Berkeley, Calif.-based 3D Robotics’ Solo quadcopter.

Agribotix Chief Operating Officer Paul Hoff said demand has been “off the charts” for his company’s Enduro quadcopter and the Solo.

Still, Hoff said he expects far more U.S. demand once the FAA releases final rules governing UAV operation.

“We’ve got interest from larger companies, and they’re not going to take a risk. They are waiting for regulations to come into play,” he said.

The first company to get an FAA exemption to start using drones in agriculture in January 2015 was Hayden, Idaho-based Empire Unmanned. President Bradley Ward said the company had flown about 4,300 acres through September using SenseFly‘s fixed-wing craft, and he hopes to quadruple that number this year.

“We exceeded our expectations of where we would be at the end of our first year,” Ward said.

Agribotix boasts that its drones can collect field imagery across 160 acres in a single flight, with sensors gauging crop health based on near-infrared waves, color detection, and standard photographs. The Solo can cover about 60 acres.

Agribotix plans to introduce applications this year that will enable its customers to get much more detailed images than are possible with manned aircraft, Hoff said.

A 3D Robotics spokesman said his company has mostly been focused on consumers, but it plans to add industry-oriented features this year that will be useful for agriculture.

DJI releases crop-dusting drone

Also jumping into the agriculture arena in December was the world’s largest consumer drone maker, Dajiang Innovation Technology Inc. (DJI), which introduced a $15,000 crop spraying quadcopter equipped with 2.6-gallon spray tank and capable of flying for only about 12 minutes.

Shenzhen, China-based DJI’s device is initially available in China and South Korea, where it could appeal to operators of smaller and irregularly shaped or positioned farms traditionally treated on foot.

Also in December, DJI, which is working on research into precision agriculture with a professor at Kansas State University, introduced a camera developed by FLIR Systems intended to show farmers differences between healthy and distressed crops.

“It’s early days for DJI’s involvement in the agricultural sector. We’re certain our UAV platforms, sensors and imaging systems will be helpful to farmers and scientists, and we fully expect our role and our equipment to grow over time,” said company spokesman Adam Najberg.