The Drone Industry – More than meets the eye

by Louise Jupp – drone expert and entrepreneur

DRONE TECHNOLOGY: AN OVERVIEW

Drones, which derive from a convergence of the disruptive technologies, of GPS, smart phones, cloud computing and improved battery technology, were initially a flying platform for carrying cameras to  enable recreational users to capture stunning photographs and video footage of their surroundings.  However, it was only a matter of time before the professional world began to see the commercial potential of an ‘eye in the sky’ for applications in construction, mining and agriculture, to name but a few.  The commercial appeal comes from a range of attributes, including:

  • The drones can cover distances or areas quickly and are not hampered by the intervening terrain or dangerous situations.  They are reasonably easy to use because of flight planning software and autonomous flight modes.  Drones can provide a cheaper alternative to using aircraft and satellite systems as well as other equipment such as cherry-pickers for inspections. 
  • Multiple types of cameras or sensors can be carried by a drone and, in some cases, several cameras or sensors can be carried at once.  This provides an opportunity to collect a wide range of data, quickly.
  • The cameras or sensors are able to collect high resolution images which, with cloud-based post-flight software can be processed to provide a wide range of maps and multiple types of information as 2D and 3D representations in near-real-time.

This capability translates into economic attributes including savings on time and costs, reduction of health and safety risks, less disruption to ongoing activities, improved team performance, increased workflow efficiency and better service delivery.

Drone technology has rapidly evolved from recreational ‘toys’ into sophisticated management tools enabling informed decision-making for a wide range of industries and applications.  Drones come in all sizes and multiple design configurations that can stay airborne from a few minutes to months depending on the power source. They also provide alternative delivery services for medicines, seeds, agri-chemicals, flame retardants and day-to-day parcels as well as providing a response to urban congestion with ‘sky taxis’.   They have even been used for public light displays instead of fireworks.

Drone technology has started to transform the commercial, agricultural, industrial, public safety, conservation, utilities, medical and humanitarian spaces. It is helping save lives, protect our environment and promoting better management of resources.  It has even led to the creation of a new sport, drone racing.

The icing on the cake for me is that the United States’ NASA is sending a helicopter drone, ‘Ingenuity’, to Mars to help expand our knowledge of the Red Planet!

Even allowing for space exploration, we have yet to see the full potential of drone technology in society.  

Finally, do not think of the drone as the single component or the most important component.  The value of drone technology is realized through a system of features where the cumulative value of the system far outweighs each individual component.  Specifically: the drone is the platform to carry a camera, sensor or other equipment; software is used to ensure accurate flight paths and data or image capture; and post-flight analytical software is used to convert the data collected into information required.  While I may use the term drone in this article for easy reading, I am, in fact, referring to the drone system. 

DRONE TECHNOLOGY IN AGRICULTURE

Traditional farming is notoriously unpredictable and risky, mostly because of the natural growing environment.  This environment, as influenced by the climate, weather, water availability, soil conditions together with pests and disease, is often at the root of the farmers’ many problems.  Consequently, a good harvest can be as much a product of luck as the farmer’s good planning and management. This situation is typically compounded by a farmer lacking:

  • Good quality, accurate and timely information about the state of their plants.
  • Sufficient time for productive tasks most often because they are tied to the time-consuming task of gathering what information they can about their crops
  • Efficient, proactive or reliable farm management strategies as much because of the data-poor conditions


These problems, which are entrenched in many traditional farming practices, mean that farmers can waste resources and miss opportunities to ‘make a plan’ to recover from, for example, pest infestations. The lynchpin to responding to these problems is the timely availability of high quality information and being able to use this information to make informed decisions about the use of their time, resources and being able to plan their best approach to achieving better yields.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in 2009 that food supplies need to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the expected global population of 9.6 billion. Furthermore, it stated this increase must be achieved with only 5% more land being converted for cultivation.  The FAO’s report identified the need for a digital agriculture revolution to achieve the level of food production efficiencies required without further environmental degradation. Digital agriculture, or agri-tech, uses technologies to provide tools, data and knowledge and thereby improve productivity, efficiency and environmental sustainability.  While drones are not the only technology available in the agri-tech toolbox, they are an important tool because of their affordability, reliability and relative ease of use.  

Currently, drone technology is predominantly focused on supporting arable farming, including grains, root crops, fruit, nuts and vineyards.  A typical range of applications of drone technology for arable farming could include, in a roughly chronological order:

  • Assessing the contours of the area to be planted and confirm drainage lines.
  • Surveying the newly germinated plants to prepare automated plant counts and confirm gaps in germination.
  • Assessing soil moisture and water distribution from irrigation systems.
  • Assessing crop health and biomass of the plants at key growth stages as well as determining stresses associated with water, nutrients, disease or the presence of pests.
  • Estimating crop damage assessments after, for example pest or disease infestations, extreme weather events or fire, for insurance claims.
  • Completing yield predictions and optimizing harvest times for the best quality and quantity of products.
  • Assisting with general farm maintenance and farm security.

The two applications where drone technology is used for completing specific tasks, rather than data collection are seed planting and crop spraying. However, this is typically for targeted applications rather than completely replacing traditional methods for full field applications.  This may become a future possibility with the use of ‘drone swarms’ where multiple drones are used in formations to cover larger areas.  Currently, it is not economically feasible to use a single drone for larger fields.  

The application of drone technology for livestock farming is starting to ‘take-off’ but it is still to prove its value or Return On Investment for key activities over and above traditional livestock farming practices.  Exceptions include using drone technology to:

  • Check on livestock, complete animal counts and in some cases, herd animals.
  • Inspect water holes and feeding areas for damage and maintenance.
  • Monitor predator activity.
  • Remotely assess animal health by communicating with radio frequency identify tags worn by animals or checking animal temperatures for anomalies.
  • Monitor stock theft and, in some cases, help apprehend perpetrators.

The use of drone technology above the fields in particular is giving farmers access to high-quality, high-resolution information not previously available to them or not easily accessible to them at the right time.  This translates into a range of benefits for farmers.   Farmers have more clarity on the condition and status of their crops throughout the growing season at a plant by plant level.  This in turn enables more timely control and response to issues on the farm, which helps farmers save time, money and resources.  In addition, farmers can use the information to improve the quality and quantity of their yields, which helps to increase their income generation opportunities.  

Ultimately, the benefits of drone-supported agriculture are giving farmers the ability to make more informed decisions so that they can make the right decisions at the right time with the right resources at the right locations.  While drone technology does not represent the ‘Silver Bullet’ for agriculture (just yet), they do provide opportunities for transforming traditional farming practices.  

I believe drone technology should be available to all farmers if we are to reach the FAO projections.  This does not mean providing every farmer with a drone but they should at least have access to processed data and advice that has been informed by drone supported data collection.

WHY I BECAME INTERESTED IN THE DRONE INDUSTRY

I have always been interested in aviation and technology, as well as having a deep appreciation of the natural history of our planet.  I subsequently chose a profession in environmental sciences, focusing on environmental impact assessment and environmental management. 

My journey with the drone industry started in 2015 when I first became aware of drones.  I was attracted by the power that could come from a simple aerial perspective and the range of information that could be generated from the visual data collected by a drone system.  This appealed to my penchant for enjoying problem-solving, finding ways to simplify and refine processes and generally help improve situations. 

With this in mind, I initially saw a way in which we could: complete our environmental studies more efficiently; present good quality images to the authorities to aid their decision-making processes for permit applications; and monitor compliance with environmental permits on construction sites.  However, as I began looking into the technology in more detail I became interested in the application of drones in agriculture because of the inherent environmental benefits resulting from their use for farming.  

It is essential that we find better ways to work within the natural systems on which we depend.  This is especially important from a global farming perspective. We cannot keep expanding into the natural environment ad infinitum.  We need to find ways to be more efficient and productive with the lands we have already utilized and cultivated.  Globally, we need to conserve the natural environment, not just for humanity’s long-term survival but also for the natural ecosystems and the animal and plant biodiversity they support.  

Drone technology can play a huge role in bringing about a more balanced interaction between global food production and maintaining the natural environment, without compromising the needs of farmers.

There is a better chance of achieving a balance between, often conflicting, land uses, largely because sustainability is an inherent by-product of the smarter, more efficient and effective farming practices that are now improving yields and profitability.  I also suggest that improved food security will eventually help to reduce the pressure on wildlife for the ‘bush meat’ trade in many countries.

Finally, it is fun to be a part of this industry,  You meet and work with people who are genuinely passionate about using drone technology to challenge the status quo for the better, to drive new advances in the industry and, in many cases, make a true difference.   

HOW YOU CAN BECOME INVOLVED IN THE DRONE INDUSTRY

First, the primary point to make, is the drone industry is more than the drone and it is more than piloting a drone.  It is very easy to fixate on the most upfront part of the industry and miss both the bigger picture and the associated opportunities.  

Yes, the drone itself is important, but someone needs to design the drone and components, build the drone, maintain it, oversee operations, provide training, regulate the safe use of the drone and so on.   However, it has to be said, it is a lot of fun to pilot your own drone whether you’re doing so for pleasure or business!

Second, despite the drone industry being a highly technical and digital industry, it is not an absolute requirement to be ‘into’ technology.  When I have suggested to others they could fly or use drones, their first response has usually been along the lines of ‘oh no, I cannot do that, I am not technically minded.’ Unfortunately, this is common response by girls and women.  

If you want to see how women are participating and growing in the drone industry, have a look at the ‘Women and Drones’ website .  Women and Drones is a US based organization dedicated to promoting the participation of women in all disciplines within the drone industry around the world.  They have an international membership, regularly showcase women in the industry on their website and social media and have established the annual ‘Women to Watch in USA’ awards.   

Many of today’s off-the-shelf consumer drones are designed to be easy to fly.  It is the major selling point.  They are stable in flight and can be flown autonomously.  There are numerous flight modes that can, for example, have the drone follow a pre-programmed path or follow you.  They have built-in safety features such as obstacle detection and avoidance options and a ‘return-to-home’ feature in the event of signal loss between the drone and the remote-control device.  These are some of the features that have opened up the possibility of many more people being able to fly and use ‘aircraft’ for recreation and business use compared to, say manned aviation.  

If you want to get into the drone industry, there are numerous avenues you can pursue beyond being a drone pilot or setting up a company to provide drone services.  These avenues may be guided by your interests and chosen professions as suggested in the few examples below:

  • You can become a pilot flying for a range of professional applications irrespective of your original profession after passing the statutory theory and practical examinations.
  • With business and project management skills you can become a commercial drone services operator for one dedicated application (e.g. agriculture) or providing a range of applications (e.g. agriculture, mining, media and construction) as you chose.
  • With administration, health and safety or quality management systems skills you can be a part of the operations team for a commercial drone services operator as well as help design manuals and best practice standards or provide training.
  • Software and computer engineer and or AI specialists can create new custom flight planning or camera operating or post-flight analytical software.  So, you could be employed by existing software companies who are looking to improve their products.  
  • As an aeronautical, robotics, electronics or mechanical engineer you could design new and innovative airframes, cameras and sensor, power systems, flight control and safety management systems and propulsion systems, to name but a few components of the drone.  Again, this can be your own company or in the employ of existing companies.
  • Alternatively, as a specialist in your chosen field, such as an agronomist, soil scientist, environmental scientist, you could assist with identifying specific relationships that can be represented in analytical software to provide better data extraction and interpretation, including automated insights.  The onus for many software providers is on closing the gap between data collection and providing real-time insights for the end user. 
  • As a lawyer, there are some very interesting legal situations that are raised by the use of drones (professional and recreational) including, for example, protecting privacy, and the need for legal frameworks and guidance for best legal practice.  Some of these issues are important in terms of promoting the acceptance of drones in society as well as protecting the professional drone industry and the public from irresponsible users.

It is interesting that the software side of the drone industry, including unmanned traffic management systems, has gained a lot of momentum in recent years and is steadily attracting more investment.  Another area of growing interest has been in companies that provide ‘anti-drone’ or counter drone services to protect sensitive areas.  

Alternatively, there are multiple opportunities to champion the use of drone technology in your chosen profession in collaboration with drone service providers.  I would encourage you to be open to the use of drone technology to help with remote observations; to collect a lot of data quickly and complete specific tasks including delivering items for all the benefits that I have listed.   

Finally, it is necessary to add an important caveat to the above. As drones share airspace with manned aviation they are subject to the safety and operational standards of one of the most regulated industries in the world.   My intention is not to put you off but rather to make sure you are aware of this significant aspect of the drone industry.   You need to know the regulations that apply to: using drones legally and safely; becoming a licensed drone pilot; using drones for commercial gain; and designing drones for commercial use.  

There are experts who can help you understand the legal requirements, explain the permitting processes and advise on your next steps.  My advice is make sure you do your research before you take any action.

IN CLOSING

This is an exciting innovative industry. 

Much like an iceberg, there is more to the industry than the visible tip of the iceberg of becoming a pilot or establishing a commercial drone services operation.  

There are still opportunities as a ‘pioneer’, to push the boundaries of drone design and use, to expand the value of data collected through software, to transform delivery systems and even identify, as yet, unrealized applications of drone technology.   

This industry has much to offer.  You can be a part of the industry directly, use the technology or benefit from the data collected or tasks completed or champion the growth of the professional industry.

The opportunities are endless and, as they say, the sky is the limit!  

About the author – Louise Jupp

Hi, my name is Louise Jupp.  I own Terreco Aviation, a consultancy focusing on the professional use of drones in agriculture and sustainable land management communities.  I am a licensed drone pilot and drone instructor, an Amazon best-selling book author and international speaker.

I promote the professional drone industry through the use of collaborative books, which showcase the experience of global experts, and through public speaking.  My aim is to raise awareness of the value of drone technology in general and to agriculture and environmentally sustainable food production in particular.

I have been asked to share my experience of the drone industry by providing an overview of: drone technology; its use in agriculture; why I came to be involved in the drone industry; and, finally, I suggest how you can become a part of this innovative industry.

I hope this article will help you gain a broader understanding of this exciting industry and appreciate the enormous scope of potential benefits drone technology has to offer society – and you.  I also hope it will help you find the way in which you can take pa rt in the drone industry and encourage you to take the plunge!

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