The potential for drones to revolutionize the agriculture industry reached fever pitch in 2015 when startups selling drone hardware, services and imagery analysis software to the industry raised $326 million from venture capital investors. That was a 189% increase on 2014, according to AgFunder data.
Farmers were promised unique insights from the sky to help them manage their operations more efficiently. Aerial images, they were promised, could help them to identify problems in their fields quicker than the traditional way — by walking or driving through fields personally.
The industry quickly realized that it wasn’t that simple or efficient. There were various reasons for the pullback in excitement about drones in agriculture among farmers, entrepreneurs and investors — drone funding dipped 64% to $118 million in 2016 — but the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) regulation that drones must be flown within “visual line of sight” (VLOS) was a key complaint.
With agricultural acres spanning hundreds and thousands of miles for many US farmers, this required the pilot to launch the drone, take imagery within VLOS, then get in his truck, drive to the next field, launch it again and so on. Farmers complained that the time and resource this required did not make drones an efficient means to survey their land.
The FAA does allow commercial operations to fly drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) but they must apply for a waiver to do so, highlighting their ability to operate a drone safely BVLOS.
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PrecisionHawk, the drone manufacturer and imagery software startup, was the first and only drone technology and service provider granted a waiver to fly drones BVLOS. And today the startup has released a blueprint for other drone operators to conduct BVLOS drone operations and successfully apply for this waiver.
PrecisionHawk partnered with the FAA on the Pathfinder Report alongside CNN and the Burlington North Santa Fe Railroad.
“The final report determined that there are three necessary components for BVLOS flight operations: detection, safety, and drone operator training,” stated Dr. Allison Ferguson, director airspace research at PrecisionHawk. “Technology must be integrated to identify cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft, pilots must be aware of existing airspace classes, temporary flight restrictions, and no-fly zones, and pilots must receive BVLOS-specific training to ensure a safety ecosystem around BVLOS drone flight.”
The research and blueprint is open source but PrecisionHawk is also offering a series of services packages to enable businesses to fly BVLOS including conducting missions for businesses, onsite training and a turnkey package.
“Drones in agriculture today are used very much on a field-by-field basis, meaning a grower, agronomist or researcher might only get to a portion of their fields in a day. Flying BVLOS could allow them to capture all of their fields in one go,” said Thomas Haun, VP Agriculture Solutions at PrecisionHawk. “Not only is this time efficient, but the real value for agriculture — a biological industry — is the ability to get that information much faster. That’s the game changer and shifts how we talk about drone use in agriculture; it can now be holistic whereas previously it was piecemeal.”
Flying BVLOS also enables drone flights to be far more repeatable than before which is essential to help farmers spot changes in their fields.
Drones have other limitations such as battery power that could still hamper efficiency and there are still question marks as to whether imagery can give farmers actionable intelligence about the health of their crops before it’s too late. But some of the most useful insights gleaned by PrecisionHawk drones in agriculture do not require a huge amount of imagery analysis. For example, Haun said that the identification of standing water before planting or harvest time, enabling farmers to better manage their operations, is a key insight their drones provide their customers. Stand count or crop emergence maps calculating the success rate of planting and potential yield are another popular insight, he added.
Companies interested in applying for a BVLOS waiver from the FAA can visit precisionhawk.com/BVLOS for more information on the waiver process.
To date, PrecisionHawk has raised more than $100 million from venture capital firms including Third Point Ventures and Millennium Technology Value Partners, with strategic investments from enterprise customers and partners including Comcast Ventures, DuPont, Intel Capital, NTT Docomo, and Yamaha Motor. The company, founded in 2010, is privately held and headquartered in Raleigh, NC.