Agriculture professionals, with more than just crop output to manage, have had to adapt to challenges, such as climate change, regulations, and market swings. As such, the industry is turning to technology to enhance decision making through accurate, reliable, and timely information to overcome some of the challenges it faces.
Agriculture has always been an information-intensive industry in which farmers need to answer questions about soil and conditions on planting and harvesting. In the recent past, obtaining the data to answer such questions required significant manpower and time. Today farmers are recognizing and embracing the true value of drone technology for their operations. While some may deploy and manage drones themselves across their fields, many farmers are at a loss when it comes to getting started, thus, opening a plethora of new business opportunities for drone pilots.
Drones, equipped with sensors, are a key ag tech tool, instrumental in data gathering, and are relatively inexpensive. They can cover large distances quickly — even flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), taking high-resolution images, and flying without disturbing crops or livestock, or jeopardizing human safety.
While drones may be a more reasonably priced alternative in the range of ag tech tools, it has not translated to full adoption and deployment across farms. In many cases ag professionals need guidance, which opens the door for drone service providers to step in to champion the power of drones for data collection and effectively communicate the how-to — not only in just data collection but also in how to turn the data into actionable intelligence.
Where to Start
In June 2016 the Federal Aviation Administration released its permanent rules for non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) operation. These rules, also known as Part 107, cover a broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and state that, to operate drones for commercial purposes, pilots no longer needed a full pilot’s license nor medical certification. Now under Part 107, drone operators only need to pass a knowledge test and receive a remote pilot airman certificate.
A key benefit of Part 107 is that it changes the legality of hiring drone operators for specific projects. In the past, the use of drones on a farm by an operator without a specific FAA exemption was essentially illegal, and therefore charging for drone services without that exemption was also illegal. These restrictions are stripped under Part 107, which has resulted in more eligible drone operators who are now able to offer their services to customers who don’t have the expertise to operate their own drones.
Operators must be at least age 16 to qualify for a remote pilot certificate and are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying, but the FAA does not require sUAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or obtain aircraft certification. Instead, the remote pilot will simply have to perform a preflight visual and operational check of the sUAS to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning properly. This includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS. The UAS must also be registered.
Beginning a Business
After receiving your license under Part 107, a drone operator will need to identify commercial applications that will improve their own work or the work of their clients. Identifying the applications and services to integrate into a portfolio will, in turn, help determine what type equipment a pilot will need. Pilots should also consider their budget and overall business objectives. There are many drone options available, including multi-rotor and fixed wing models, as well as a variety of sensors and accessories. Drone operators must also consider the imaging and analytics capabilities they will require while in the field. For agriculture, a software platform that offers image stitching and analysis capabilities along with support for outputs from thermal and other advanced sensors are necessities.
While pilots licensed under Part 107 have already demonstrated that they have the proper certifications for commercial drone activities, there are other safety considerations. Drone service providers should carry hull and liability insurance — for the equipment and bodily injury. Drone service providers are also encouraged to develop a safety manual to ensure an OSHA-compliant and safe workplace environment. This manual should be specific to the pilot’s industry.
While Part 107 offers a general license for commercial drone operations, some types of missions aren’t permitted. For instance, in agriculture a waiver allowing BVLOS flight of the operator allows pilots to capture more area in a single deployment compared to flying a drone within line of sight.
Most importantly, pilots must think about their clients. Drone operators looking to launch drone services businesses in agriculture should have to do more than simply fly their drones. They must consider:
- The motivations and challenges of prospective clients. To do this, pilots need to learn about issues that are at the core of farming, such as growing cycles, plant health, and crop threats.
- Interpretation of the data for your clients. Anybody can take photographs of a farm field and stitch them together. Delivering greater value to agriculture customers requires interpreting the data so they can quickly make decisions. For example, a pilot might fly a wheat field for a farmer and use post-processed nitrogen reports to show them where there may be nutrient deficiencies.
- Price simply and appropriately. Offer services at a flat rate, by the acre, or some combination of both. Make it easy for clients to engage services at a scale and frequency they prefer.
As drone service providers Part 107 pilots will be able to make money working in agriculture and can even span other industries such as construction or energy. The service pilots provide will transform the way ag professionals do business. With quicker and more accurate data processing capabilities, drone technology is disrupting ag industry standards by helping to reduce cost and risk all while increasing overall income.