Few people doubt the impact drones could have on the farm, partly because there are so many ways the technology can be leveraged. Whether it’s simple scouting or doing physical tasks like spraying a field, drones can represent an increase in efficiency and effectiveness that could inherently change the way farmers approaches a given task.
However, the details around exactly how growers of all types and sizes can take advantage of such capabilities are things that still need to be worked out at several different levels. One of those is the regulatory level, and while many growers in the United States had been waiting for Part 107 before taking a real look at the technology, implementation under that rule is a completely separate topic. Considering how drones can and will impact different types of farmers that are growing different crops in different parts of the world illustrate the further challenges that lie ahead.
To get a better understanding around how professionals are sorting through those challenges, I connected with Norm Lamothe, Head of UAS Agriculture at Deveron UAS. The company provides a reliable and affordable imagery solution to growers, and Norm is leading Deveron’s expansion of UAV imagery services across the province of Ontario. Being able to effectively utilize UAV technology is about something much bigger for Norm though, since he also manages his family’s 500-acre farm near Peterborough, ON.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Tell us a little bit about your company. In what ways are you able to make imagery easy?
Norm Lamothe: Our company was born through the opportunity to provide the agriculture sector with a solution of gathering timely, in-season data through the use of remote sensing. The technology isn’t new, but the ability to onboard that technology in a UAV, and capture the information in an efficient manner is. Farms are getting larger, and it is becoming more difficult to scout all of a producer’s acres in a timely fashion. Our technology now allows that. We make imagery easy through the efficiencies of a pilot and UAV network that can gather data at scale in a cost effective manner.
What services do you provide, and how do they make your offerings stand out?
Our company offerings provide the latest and greatest of what the marketplace has to offer. We provide solutions through plant health analysis, disease/pest management through timely gathering (and transfer) of data. Our goal is to turn around data within 48 hours, and can do so in less time where needed. We also provide water and nutrient management solutions through collaborations with agronomists and leading analytics partners. We are agnostic in sense that we remove the risk of the hardware, sensor, software, analytics pairing challenges that are present if you are an individual grower who purchases as UAV and are tied to a certain sensor and software solution. We have the ability to work with a variety of industry leaders who provide the best solutions.
You mention that every field is different, and I imagine variation is an issue you run into quite often since you’re dealing with farms and farmers that have different crops, sizes, etc. How does that impact your approach?
Our services, and the solutions we provide are tailored to each unique situation we face and request we receive. Whether we are working with an industrial producer, a crop protection company, a co-operative or an individual grower, we listen to each of their challenges and look for opportunities to identify where solutions through the use of remote sensing exist.
Has Part 107 changed the conversations you’re having with farmers in America? What can you tell us about the regulatory environment in Canada?
Canada was a leader in the UAV regulatory environment out of the gate while the US was in a moratorium. The US has now surpassed Canada in accelerating the adoption of UAV use for commercial purposes. This will accelerate the opportunity for our network to enter the US market through collaborations with US companies that are looking to grow their businesses with the Deveron family. We still feel that scale and the enterprise customer will not affect our business goals. The regulatory environment in Canada is also changing. It will favour commercial operators like Deveron who have demonstrated a professional and safe track record.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen growers run into in terms of being able to utilize UAV technology? Does that impact whether or not they look to utilize a service provider or work to figure out the technology for themselves?
Growers still need to have the desire and equipment at the farm level to react to the information that UAV technology can provide. We provide a very affordable solution to anyone who is looking to explore the use of the technology in their operations. We will soon be releasing a Case Study where we will demonstrate that there is a cost savings of 60% or more to hire a service based company versus purchasing their own hardware and managing all that goes along with that.
What are some of the “simple” ways that drones can be utilized on the farm?
Drones are a great scouting tool. They offer a very efficient way of gather data over a large scale operation. A simple view from above give a much different perspective. There are plenty of examples of best management practices that you can see from the air that you cannot see from the truck.
On the other side of that, how sophisticated can that technology and process get?
Pardon the pun, but the sky is the limit. Gathering data is easy, gathering good data and then taking that data to the next level and using it to make a meaningful and timely decision is difficult. There will be additional opportunities at making discoveries using new sensors as they become more cost effective such as thermal, hyperspectral and gathering data in a more efficient manner through the use of sophisticated equipment that can go beyond line of sight.
ROI is an issue that farmers are inherently focused on, and that’s especially true when it comes to drone technology. In what ways are you able to address this topic with potential clients?
2016 was an exciting year for us. We have demonstrated in three specific cases where there has been a positive (larger that 2:1) ROI for our customers. We are still taking crops off here in Canada, and look forward to publishing our successes through the winter once all of the yield data is in.
What are some quantifiable ways you’ve been able to demonstrate how UAVs are able to provide a return that directly impacts a growers bottom line?
The low hanging fruit are areas that either costs growers a lot of money, or could cost growers a lot of money if timely decisions are not made. Our focus to date has been on the use of nutrients and crop protection products and how do we use these more efficiently across the industry. Our goal is to either decrease costs, or increase yields, which ultimately improves a grower’s bottom line. I regularly use the terms “predictable” and “prescriptible” as where the longer term opportunities exist. The funny thing is, we also need to listen to what growers bring to the table, they are often bringing ideas that they are looking for solutions on that we didn’t even think about. We then work with our partners to identify if there are solutions to those problems in remote sensing.
How are the predictions we’re seeing about the billions of dollars the agriculture drones market possesses impacting the market? How accurate do you think these predictions really are?
We are not there yet. I will be the first to tell you that drones are not the holy grail for agriculture (at least not today!). Some of the tools being developed for agriculture on the analytics and software side are not representative of either what the growers are asking for or what the growers can do with the equipment and products available. Some of it is “nice-to-know” stuff. We still have some work to do here.
I admit to sometimes getting caught up in the talk about how much agriculture can and will change, but do you think this is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees? Are we focused on an undefined future at the expense of the technology in the present that we need to develop in order to get there?
They are a tool in a growers arsenal, that we can use to marry with other forms of technology to get a complete picture. Companies in San Francisco have visions of machine learning and artificial intelligence. In order to do this in a meaningful and accurate way, a lot of data is required, a vast amount of calibration and data points on the ground are required. It will take a lot of data to make these tools more powerful and there is still a lot of data left to be collected!
How do you see drones having an impact on precision agriculture as whole in 2017 and beyond?
As we look to get past the hype and beyond the “wow factor”, we are paving the way at identifying where the real applications will be for drones as we move forward. The technology is an incredible one, and I see tremendous opportunities at demonstrating ROIs. Farming operations have access to a variety of technology tools and as we as an industry still need to find solutions to manage and utilize all the different layers of the technologies we have available in an efficient manner to make better decisions at the farm level. The future is very bright if we can bring all of these pieces together.
To hear more from and about Norm and the impact UAV technology is having on the farm, check out episode #23 of the Commercial Drone.FM podcast – Drones in Agriculture: How They’re Really Being Used with Norm Lamothe