RED RIVER VALLEY, MANITOBA — A high-tech gizmo that looks like a miniature UFO buzzing low over cultivated fields, gathering useful information about water drainage, crop yields and plant health, and sending the data to a computer screen for analysis: such is the agricultural drone, a seductive, relatively new entry in the arsenal of 21st century precision farming.
The hype surrounding these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) has been impressive.
“Drones set to give global farming a makeover,” said a December 2015 headline in the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper.
“Farmers are demanding more technology to help boost yields amid low crop prices,” said a story on Bloomberg in late August. In the MIT Technology Review, the market for drones in agriculture was recently estimated at $32.4 billion. Drones were cited as “part of the solution” for feeding a world population estimated at nine billion in 2050.
The reality of farming with the aid of drones, though, may be a bit more complicated, involving investments of time and money as well as requiring continued development of technical expertise. Drones may break and crash and the software needed to interpret their data may cost thousands of dollars and require extensive training.
Yet growing demand for better information about all aspects of agriculture keeps interest high in these small flying machines outfitted with cameras. A flurry of vendors and service providers are moving fast to capitalize on farmers’ needs for quality data as they chase profits at a time of low crop prices.
|Scott Hiebert, c.e.o. of Green Aero Tech|
“It’s not about a new fad; it about finding real problems and solving them,” said Scott Hiebert, chief executive officer of Green Aero Tech in Red River Valley, Manitoba.
Following is the story of how he developed his start-up, a private company based in Canada that provides data collected by drones to farmers in North America.
“We have worked all across Canada. And now we are moving into the States as far away as Florida,” he said. His expansion, though, didn’t materialize before he paid his dues by wrestling with the best way for his company to move forward, a path that has included its share of rough terrain.
Mr. Hiebert started out by testing different models that might be sold to producers. But his business model evolved to where he operates drones for customers and processes the data for about $4 to $10 an acre because he thinks many producers will conclude that investing in drones to fly on their land is a capital investment they shouldn’t undertake.
He is quick to point out that the mantra in the marketplace that a drone doesn’t need to cost much more than $1,000 is mostly not true for farmers: the models that do best in the ag arena cost much more than that.
“The average consumer drone — yes — it costs about $1,000. But the ones we have cost anywhere from $25,000 to a $100-plus thousand dollars,” he told Milling & Baking News. He also discovered that training to use more sophisticated hardware sometimes could mean travelling to another continent, Europe, to learn specific drone systems. Through trial-and-error, he decided on a business plan to amass a fleet of about 14 drones to offer to agricultural customers, who would own the data collected and be able to access it anytime via a proprietary portal offered by business partners.
Green Aero Tech has six offices across Southern Canada from Vancouver to Ottawa and there are now plans to expand into the northern United States.
“We incorporated as a U.S. company about five or six months ago,” Mr. Hiebert said. “We’re going to be acquiring and/or merging with a couple of key players in the U.S. That’s what I will be working on for the next few months.”
In the meantime, Green Aero Tech was developed following a capital investment of at least $300,000 in equipment alone, with additional money spent on testing drone systems.
“We started in hardware,” he said. “That was two to three years ago. We couldn’t get a distribution agreement on some of the systems we really liked to use. We ended up running into problems: people didn’t want to spend money on something they weren’t sure how they could use.
“Some farmers didn’t have enough time, some farmers didn’t have enough capital. We probably spent another $200,000 on UAVs that didn’t work. Some of them we returned, some of them we still have.”
He said one system he considered investing in cost nearly $100,000 and required travelling to Europe to get training on it.
“It didn’t work well,” he noted. Another system manufactured in the United States also didn’t work as advertised.
“Some of them didn’t work well at all,” he said. “Some of them crashed. We spent a lot of money trying these things.”
Mr. Hiebert came to the conclusion that selling UAV hardware to farmers might not be the way to go.
“We thought maybe this market isn’t ready for everyone to own their own drones,” he said.
His typical customer is a farmer in his 50s, because younger ones often try to work with drones on their own.
“They think they have a little bit more time, but then they find out they don’t have the time,” he said.
But contracting out drones meant Green Aero Tech company would have to offer a way to process the data — and that offered additional challenges.
“We spent all this money on equipment and then we ran into a problem with processing,” he said. “So we found a company that had solved that problem. They had a data center and they needed to grow on the service side. A brilliant guy ran the data center and had the software — that cost a lot of money, too.”
Green Aero Tech merged with the data processing company, AgSky, in 2015.
“They had the back-end data center and we had the drones,” he said.
The company’s services are offered in strategic partnerships with other agricultural businesses.
“Quite a few John Deere dealerships are offering our services in Canada,” he said. “We are utilizing their sales network and everybody wins because now a farmer doesn’t have to go to 18 different places to get his data. We’ve developed a portal so that farmers can have direct access to their data through our web site.”
That data is always owned by the producer.
“We’re not a data company, we’re an information company,” he said. “We’ll store it, but in the end it’s theirs. We keep backups for them for our records and for safe-keeping.”
He emphasizes that, in most cases, Green Aero Tech doesn’t analyze the data that is collected but leaves that to experts such as agronomists. He said customers “order the data and it gets input into their farm management software and then their agronomists or drainage manager can view that and make recommendations and it will automatically import to their monitors. That’s where the value is.”
He added that land remote from cell-phone coverage is not a problem.
“We don’t require the internet,” he said. “We’ve worked in areas where would be offline for a couple of days.”
In these early years of Green Aero Tech’s operation, most of its drone-powered data gathering has been focused on drainage issues.
“We can show the natural flow of water,” he explained. “We can show hills, we can show depressions, show the waterways and how many acres are draining across the land. Where we stop is giving recommendations.
“We would create a map for a farmer’s field that would give elevations that were accurate to within two inches, and that’s a lot when you are covering literally every single inch and you are getting just over an inch in ground resolution. If you are getting a survey that is accurate to what is just under an inch, you’d have to walk every inch of your land.
“What was great about that compared with driving those fields is you’re getting everything, you’re not missing ditches, you’re not bringing foreign materials onto the soil. We have a big problem in Canada with biosecurity. So we’re not dragging equipment from one province to another. If it works in Canada, it will work in the States.”
He added that drainage is a big issue both in Canada and the Northern Midwest mostly because of the climate. But there are other capabilities as well, in addition to helping farmers deal with drainage issues.
“We’re creating a map that shows certain types of crop stress,” Mr. Hiebert said. “It’s very good at showing the moisture content of the soil and seeing where it’s stresses. This is important, for instance, when crops are flowering. An infrared can be very uniform over a crop.”
He firmly believes producers will balk if drone companies try to tell them what their agricultural problems are, rather than just offering top-quality data for others to interpret.“You aren’t going to tell a guy who has farmed for 40 years everything that is wrong with his land,” he said. “He knows his land really well. That said, there are guys who try to drain their water up hill.”