Farming Takes Flight

By Tim Sparapani

Ernest Earon was walking through a client’s farm recently when he noticed one of his company’s unmanned drones flying over the fields snapping photos. It was a heart-tugging moment for the entrepreneur. “Unexpectedly coming upon one of our aircraft, up there doing its job, was just a pretty cool moment for me,” said Earon, co-founder and chief technology officer at PrecisionHawk, a drone mapping and analytics company that helps users collect and analyze data coming from drones.

PrecisionHawk has been expanding throughout South America and Australia for years but was stymied in the U.S. by onerous regulations. After the FAA loosened those regulations in late August 2016, growers started adopting new drone technology at a breakneck pace.

It’s just one aspect of the booming “ag tech” (agricultural technology) field. Just this week, CB Insights identified more than 100 private companies in ag tech, sorting them into nine main categories including sensors, smart irrigation, and robotics and drones.

Farming has always been an information intensive industry: Growers need answers to hundreds of questions about air and soil conditions, plant stressors and optimal timing for everything from planting to harvesting. In the past, obtaining the data needed to answer those questions required thousands of hours and lots of workers. Many of today’s farms are efficient, data-gathering dynamos. Tractors have IP addresses, harvesters can measure the yield as it’s coming out of the ground, biometric sensors report on livestock health, and sophisticated algorithms help farmers manage tasks such as watering and seed ordering.

Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of these technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization. The tractor, for example, led to a 140% jump in farm productivity between 1910 and 1950. Other mechanization, such as automatic harvesters and automatic planters that incorporated herbicides, spurred another climb of 170% between 1950 and 2010, says Michael Walden, professor of agriculture and resource economics at North Carolina State University. “That’s more than double the productivity gains in the nonfarm economy.”

Walden thinks we’re about to take another leap forward in productivity as more farmers adopt ag tech. “That’s what technology does,” he says. “It allows us to get more from less.”

Technology is important because “no one’s giving out new farmland,” says Earon. “The costs of spraying pesticides and fertilizers everywhere is too great. We have to do more with less. Farmers know the climate is changing. Everyone is looking for ways to get that leg up and continue to produce.”

Drones are a key part of the data gathering. They can cover large distances very fast, take high-resolution photos and fly over fields without affecting crops, all at a relatively low price.

“We put a lot of different sensors on them and can collect the exact insights you need to address the problem in front of you,” says Earon. “They see that the section of the field with drainage issues — which we know about because we’ve done 3D modeling — lost a lot of nitrogen because of the rain and we need to reapply it. The drone is collecting the information and providing that insight back to the grower.”

So far, adoption of data technology is highest where there are problems, such as on farms where drought or pests are present. It’s also getting easier to buy and use the technology. Drones cost as little as $1,000, and PrecisionHawk gives its software away for free. “We want as many people using it as possible so we get that feedback to help us make it better,” say Earon.

He’s already looking at a future where crops and sensors are developed together, and fewer humans are necessary to plant and harvest crops. “Farming is going to be less about driving tractors and a whole lot more about making decisions on what’s coming up next year,” he says. “Humans are not going to be involved except to manage the whole process.” There’s already a group in England attempting to grow a barley field without any human activity on the field itself using drones, driverless tractors and remote-controlled combines.

As technology takes over the rote parts of farming, different kinds of human work will be required. In fact, PrecisionHawk currently is staffing up on agronomists, geo-spacial scientists and other experts. Other drone companies in the farming space include TerrAvion, Agribotix and Skycision.

“Let the machines do what they’re good at,” says Earon. “Robots are very good at doing the same thing over and over and over again. They don’t care how hot it is. They just take good pictures.”

Humans, on the other hand, are good at using data to build new tools and figuring out new ways to use it. “We’re not putting people out of work,” says Earon. “We’re letting them do other things.”

Tim Sparapani is Senior Policy Fellow at CALinnovates.