Farming Drone Platforms
The agricultural drone industry is exploding. It seems nearly every week another business opens its doors trying to serve this exciting segment of precision farming. While the FAA has not given the green light for commercial drone use, many producers have seen the opportunities and started flying drones to see how they can improve their operation.
The word 'drone' conjures up different images for different people. Just like the demands of a haying tractor are quite different than the demands of a tillage tractor, different drone platforms are intended for different applications. The most common drone is the ubiquitous DJI Phantom. Messick's owns a Phantom for capturing demo's and event photography. While a quad-coptor drone can scout crops for weeds and capture awesome equipment operation videos, they don't work well in field mapping applications. A quad-coptor expends its battery power holding itself in the air constantly, its camera also requires an expensive gimbal and mounts to reduce vibration and movement. Short flight times and low speeds limit you to covering 10-20 acres before the battery runs dead. In the rush towards bringing products to market major equipment companies have slapped the name 'Farm Drone' on quad-coptor platforms that simply don't belong in mapping applications.
Companies have sprung up to create platforms that are better suited to field mapping applications than a quad-coptor. Traditional airplane designs, or flying wing designs, utilize the natural lift of the wing to raise speeds and extend flight times up to 2 hours. With an adequately sized fresh battery over 900 acres can be mapped with sufficient camera resolution for field analysis software. We prefer flying at lower altitudes capturing 200-300 acres\flight for greater detail.
Many expensive farming drones share one dirty little secret. Inside most drones you will find electronics, navigation hardware, and mission planning software straight out of freely available hobbyist projects. A California based company called 3D Robotics pioneered the electronics needed to navigate and control drones, as well as organized hobbyists who created a free open source drone software package called Mission Planner. Pioneering agriculture drone companies decided that rather than start from scratch, they would build their offerings on top of these same hobbyist projects. While this is a great way to kick start a business, its hard to see how they can justify a $15,000 - $30,000 price tag for doing little more than building an airframe and stuffing it full of hobbyist electronics and free software.
Our attraction to Event38 was that they did not try and hide the inner workings of their drones. The E384 is a drone optimized for Agriculture and mapping applications that's based upon the very same rapidly evolving 3D Robotics hardware as most other farming drones. The parts are the same bits you'll find on Hobbyist aircraft, nothing expensive, proprietary, or hard to fix after a crash. A sub $3,000 price point offers a chance for a quick return on investment for small fields and small acreage farms. Event 38 seemed to recognize that the drone simply gets a camera in the air, their value is in their skill of assembling these parts and tuning the aircraft for mapping. Recently they've started providing online software for processing the field imagery into usable files for analysis.
If your see an application for Drones over your fields contact the Messick's precision farming department. We're excited to partner with you as we explore how new technologies can improve yields and profits.