Agriculture Will Be Big, But Realtors, Others First to Use Drones

 - July 26, 2015, 5:24 PM
Lockheed Martin makes the Indago quadcopter. It was among sponsors of a return on investment calculator. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The benefits of using drones for “precision agriculture,” expected to be one of the largest markets for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the U.S., are becoming clearer. But real estate and other industries that use aerial photography lead in adopting the technology, based on the first several hundred exemptions the Federal Aviation Administration has granted for commercial drone operations.

The early preponderance of drone use or intended use by realtors in particular belies the anticipated demand from farmers. In 2013, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released an economic impact study which predicted that drones will contribute $82.1 billion to the U.S. economy from 2015-2025 assuming a favorable regulatory framework, with agriculture representing $75.6 billion of the total.

Precision agriculture includes overflying crops with small fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft equipped with cameras to detect problems or growth patterns, as well as precisely applying pesticides, fertilizer or seeds with an aircraft such as the Yamaha Rmax helicopter. “During the survey interviews, we discovered that there were unlimited uses of UAS,” the study authors noted. “For example, many respondents discussed the potential uses of UAS for real estate purposes or for examining oil pipelines. In the case of oil pipelines, the consensus of experts was that the total annual sale was approximately 1,000 units. For real estate personnel, there was not a consensus.” AUVSI plans to issue an updated economic impact study, according to CEO Brian Wynne.

On July 23, representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the Motion Picture Association of America, the Associated General Contractors of America, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and electrical power company AES participated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus and moderated by Wynne. Among the highlights, R.J. Karney, AFBF director of congressional relations, revealed early findings of an “ROI Calculator” the farm bureau developed with drone services company Measure and Informa Economics to quantify the return on investment from using drones in precision agriculture.

Described as the first such web-based tool available to farmers, the ROI Calculator identifies the economic benefits of using drones for crop scouting, 3-D terrain mapping and crop damage assessment by insurers. It initially covers corn, wheat and soybeans, three of the largest production crops. In the case of crop scouting—using a drone service to collect visual and near infrared imagery—the calculator finds the average U.S. farmer would realize a return on investment of $12 per acre for corn, $2.60 for soybeans and $2.30 for wheat. Big companies have an interest in those numbers. Principal sponsors of the calculator effort include Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the Indago quadcopter, and food and beverage giant PepsiCo.

But for now at least, the real estate industry appears to be among the fastest industries to adopt drones. Residential and commercial real estate professionals can use the digital video and still imagery collected by relatively inexpensive drones to create web-based property listings. Speaking at the House forum, Florida realtor Andrew Barbar, representing the NAR, cited results of an analysis the association conducted of the first “Section 333” exemptions the FAA granted to applicants seeking to fly drones for commercial purposes—846 as of July 22. Of that number, 377, or 44 percent of the exemptions, were either real estate-focused or general aerial photography operations that could include real estate applications, according to the NAR.

An analysis of the first 711 exemptions the FAA granted through June 30, conducted by The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, determined that 45 percent of exemptions were for multi-industry photo and film operations. By industry, 25 percent were for utilities and energy infrastructure; 24 percent for real estate; 18 percent for agriculture; and 14 percent for construction. Bard and technology website The Verge found that more than half of the first 500 exemptions specified drones supplied by Chinese manufacturer DJI, such as the $3,000 professional-grade Inspire 1 and consumer-grade Phantom series of quadcopters.

AUVSI expects to release its own analysis of the first 500 exemptions on July 29. That will be only half of the story. The FAA informed AIN that it had approved more than 900 exemptions as of July 24. The agency had “closed out” or denied more than 100 applications due to insufficient information.