I'll be writing a column about the hyper-fashionable droning on about drones for FJ, but the hype surrounding this technology is spiraling out of sight.
The Associated Press reports that some farmers have already begun flying their own drones ahead of Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial use of drones. There are roughly 2.2 million farms in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Not every farmer is going to buy a drone, of course. But many will. And when it comes to agriculture, drones are a complete game changer. [More breathless hyperbole]
Where to begin?
- In the above article the author doesn't seem to grasp the difference between a 2 HA. rice paddy and a section of wheat. Drones don't scale up well, at least on the budgets we're looking at in 2014 and beyond.
- Look at a typical farmer-affordable drone. Even if we forked over thousands we'd still end up with a payload of (drum roll, please) about 2 pounds for a popular model. But wait, on the plus side, it will fly for a whole ten minutes! I suppose we could be talking about spraying on weed or a small patch, but if it's beans or corn below 6' that's what tall sprayers are for. It looks to me that any problem that a drone could handle is not likely to be visible on your bottom line or yield map.
- The one task we know drones can handle are surveillance. OK, you can send a drone to criss-cross your cornfield in a perfect pattern videoing your crop. You end up with hundreds of gigs of video someone must review or watch in real time. And then you.....? What crop problems are you going to be able to identify from 10 feet at 20 mph or? Let alone mitigate?
- Bugs? I'll be generous and allow you have super vision to see the damage under leaves or in a whorl AND identify the bug in question (which is preposterous, of course) but then you run into issue (2).
- Population? Too late.
- Fungus? Too late, usually. Besides we really don't have a great selection of curative fungicides.
- Drainage. Cripes, you should know those problems before you plant. I will give points for finding new tile holes.
- Fertility? Yard-by-yard measurement of greenness is much less useful than infrared satellite images, IMHO. I can see applicators with greenness sensors - at least they are closer to the plant. And I'm not sure the science is there to tell us what to do with whatever data product we get back.
The basis for all this hype seems to be split-second monitoring of crops can make a crucial difference. Maybe. But if you're standing there flying your drone, I'll bet it might occur to you to, well, walk into the field and look around.
I just don't think this is The Next Big Thing. I think it's the Next Ephemeral Fad and I've started the clock on its fifteen minutes.
Besides, anybody want to bet what these agri-toys will cost 5 years from now? All those who think they'll be the cost/utility ratio won't plummet raise your hands.
I think we've learned this lesson. It won't change my game.
Breaking the seed corn cartel would. This looks like a bright shiny object to draw our gaze away from real issues like that.