The next 12 months in the always-moving world of unmanned aerial technology (drones) could prove quite the rough stretch for drones in agriculture.
Although I hesitate to be such a buzz-kill while still in the midst of the holiday season, I can’t ignore the fact that many precision ag industry insiders I’ve spoken with recently have expressed concern that a near perfect storm of circumstances will lead to a sizeable step backward in U.S. agriculture’s adoption of drone technology in 2015.
Chief among those concerns are the following:
1: Commodity prices, when compared with 2012 figures when the technology first began taking off in rural farming communities, remain severely depressed. In an environment of shrinking profit margins, farmers, historically a fiscally conservative bunch, have pulled back on asset (large equipment) and crop input (fertilizer, chemicals, etc.) expenditures. That’s not a good sign for drone manufacturers looking to get more growers on board with their UAV platforms in ’15.
2: FAA, already WAY behind the eight ball in getting commercial drone operations underway in the National Airspace by the Congressionally-mandated 2015 deadline, now is being petitioned by UAS America to come up with sensible regulations for micro drones, or UAVs that weigh under three pounds and operate below the 400 foot ceiling. More work for FAA likely means more waiting for the rest of us, unfortunately.
3: Anti-Drone Undercurrent: There’s currently a sentiment in ag that is gaining steam among those in-the-know – the sentiment that drones are, at this point, simply toys or hobby items (similar to RC planes and helicopters) and their application in farming isn’t driven by return-on-investment, but rather by our natural curiosity to explore and be on the forefront of the latest and greatest technologies. Drone companies and advocates can continue to demonstrate the usefulness of the technology all they want, but if there is a large percentage of the industry that simply doesn’t want to hear it – and are increasingly turning to satellite and ground-deployed imagery as a more practical approach – making inroads with skeptical growers is going to remain tough sledding.
In closing let me just say that I hope and pray these predictions are wrong. In this author’s opinion, drone technology is more than worth rolling the dice on now (and perhaps experiencing some growing pains) in order to be an experienced early adopter, rather than a dreaded “drone-noob,” once U.S. commercial operations get underway.