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Software and Domain Knowledge Trump Commodity Hardware for Precision Ag Drone Suppliers, Endusers

Remote sensing services provider Agribotix recently posted a blog entry entitled Agribotix Takeaways From the 2014 Precision Aerial Ag Show in Decatur, IL”. The title, while not exactly clickbait, aptly describes the topic of the entry. More importantly, in the blog proper the authors make several valid points concerning the use of small aerial drones for precision agriculture work, as well as for other commercial applications.

Massive Market  -  According to the blog’s authors, the Precision Aerial Ag Show (PAAS) was active. This is to be expected given the high profile bestowed to drone technologies for agricultural applications by members of the gadget and business press, as well as technology analysts and the investment community. The enthusiasm is warranted. For example, a 2013 market study produced by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) titled “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” predicts that the economic impact of the integration of UAS into the NAS will total more than $13.6 billion in the first three years of integration and will grow substantially in the near future, reaching more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025 (depending, of course, on regulatory approval following the timeline outlined in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012). According to the report, precision agriculture and public safety will make up more than 90% of this growth, and goes on to state “the commercial agriculture market is by far the largest segment, dwarfing all others”.

Small Event  -  The market for drone enabled precision agriculture is hot, but the PAAS event, while busy, was relatively small. Sponsors included Ford and Trimble ($2.3B producer of positioning technologies, including GPS, laser, optical and inertial sensors), but most exhibitors were small companies. The speakers, too, were representatives of small businesses or academics. This is not a reflection on the market per se, nor of the topics. Instead, it is the result of the location of the conference… the farm belt city of Decatur, Illinois. Decatur, of course, is the perfect location for an agriculture event, but perhaps it is not optimal for a pure drone conference where the emphasis is largely on business, investment and partnership opportunities, and not necessarily the day-to-day work of farming. With this thought, let’s return to the Agribotix blog.

Data Not Drones  -  The Agribotix blog authors make two key points regarding the PAAS event. First, there was an overemphasis placed on hardware at the show. The logical follow-on was their second point… there was a concomitant under emphasis given to software.

The opinion of the Agribotix bloggers could be regarded as self-serving. Agribotix describes itself as a “remote sensing company that provides imaging and analysis to agricultural clients.” The company, however, does offer its own drone hardware, but they expect to drop the systems as more robust, yet low cost, systems come to market.

The authors contend that drones will become commoditized, mostly due to sharp competition supported by an abundance of open source software and off-the-shelf hardware. Quoting the blog directly… “We firmly believe that the cost of a UAV, minus sensors, will fall to around $1,000 and there will likely be no place for $30,000 airframes in the near future.” I would further qualify this statement to limit their conclusion to the developers of small unmanned aerial systems, say, those under 50 pounds. Still, the authors are essentially correct, and even if their statement is only half true it could result in a number of unprofitable or non-existent drone suppliers, at least for companies betting heavily on precision agriculture applications.

Both Suppliers and End-Users  -  For drone suppliers targeting the precision agriculture market, it is an emphasis on software, not hardware, which is the optimal path. This software can be of many types including operational (control link security, autonomous flight, managing buffeting and drafts, etc.), imaging (data capture, image analysis, etc.) and support tools (dashboards, workflow, etc.). Domain expertise also differentiates the precision agriculture solution provider from the mere drone supplier. Suppliers of unmanned aerial systems for precision agriculture should take note, along with those evaluating the same. 

Tags - Agribotix, agriculture, UAS, UAV, unmanned aerial systems, precision agriculture, FAA, AUVSI

Dan Kara is Practice Director, Robotics at ABI Research. He can be reached at kara(AT) You can follow Dan Kara on Twitter: @ABI_Robotics.



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