It is an almost magical feeling to fly a drone. Controlling an object at a distance, it reacts instantaneously when you move the sticks on the transmitter. And if the drone comes equipped with FPV (first person view), you can see what it sees, contributing to an out-of-body experience.
That’s great for recreational flying and for certain special applications like search-and-rescue. But for many business scenarios where drones fit into the process it is when we take the human out of the loop that it starts getting interesting.
Some drones already offer the capability to conduct autonomous missions. That means flying along a predefined route and pointing the sensors (such as a camera) in predefined directions. Often, human intervention is still required to prepare the drone for flight, select a mission, transfer and analyze the data, recharge batteries.
Farmers with drones talk about one-button solutions. The ambition is to have one or more drones ready to go, and all it takes is one command in order to initiate and complete a mission. Services like DroneDeploy are delivering to this kind of scenario, offering to automate the flight and data analysis.
It is when something becomes embedded (in a larger system or in a process) that the impact of the technology starts taking off. Once drones become boring routine they will be well on their way to change the world.
Imagine pushing the one-button drones-in-farming scenario just a bit further:
- A fleet of drones are kept in a purpose-built small structure near the farm. The structure provides shelter for drones when they are on the ground, automated recharging/battery swaps, and hatches for take-off and landings. (Yes, it is likely this will come to be referred to as the drone shed. A common feature on future farms.)
- Drones run diagnostics on their systems at regular intervals (including before and after every flight) and can call for service.
- Flights are scheduled according to seasons, crops, weather and other events. If a drone returns with data that indicates an issue, exception handling algorithms can intervene to schedule additional flights with the appropriate sensors.
- Up-to-date data from drone flights used in conjunction with soil sensors to operate the farm’s irrigation systems. The farmer can look at the drone data but they don’t have to.
- Up-to-date data from drone flights used when spreading fertilizer. The spreader/sprayer uses the drone data in conjunction with geotagged harvesting data to drive the individual nozzles so that the right amount of fertilizer is delivered to each are of the field. Again, the farmer doesn’t have to calculate the distribution of fertilizer, the data collected from the drones are just one parameter to the model used by the spreader or sprayer.
- An app produces alerts with the latest predictions for harvest timing and estimated yield. Drone data collected with sensors capable of detecting light outside of the visible spectrum contribute to the algorithm.
Farming is already taking advantage of A/B testing and cloud solutions. A rich layer of data supplied by drones plays well into that equation.
More technology is not a substitute for walking the fields but the farmers I know are excited about anything that helps reduce inputs and increase yields. Governments and consumers should be too.