Why Drones are Valuable Tools for Plant Breeders

scanning plants.jpg

Drone industry analysts have pegged agriculture as one of the top sectors for future drone growth. Drones save farmers time, money and give them valuable data about crops that help them be more profitable. But drones have even more potential for plant breeders.

Its simple really, farmers plant one kind of soybean plat in a 10 acre field, while a plant breeder might have 1,000 different kinds of soybean plants in a single acre. In a recent article in the Daily Register, (local Illinois paper) University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers explained the significance of this, “The farmer can fairly quickly determine whether the single variety in a field is ready to be harvested. However, breeders have to walk through research fields several times in the fall to determine the date when each potential variety matures.”

Generally, plant breeders check the plants every three days to see how the different varieties are doing. Obviously this is extremely time consuming. The researchers at the University of Illinois started using drones to scan and observe the plants instead of walking the fields. They used multi-spectral images and were able to tell the difference between mature an immature plants based on changes in the light frequency they reflected. They plugged this information into a self-made algorithm and found that using drones achieved 93% of the accuracy of physically walking the fields and checking plants, while saving a ton of time.

Farmers in Africa are already using this technique to improve plant breeding. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Southern Africa first tested using drones in 2013 and found they can save a lot of time. While it would normally take 8 hours to walk the fields to check the plants, the same task can be done in 10 minutes with a drone.

This efficiency is especially important for African farmers as they have to find new breeds of maize and wheat that are more resistant to the climate changes they are currently experiencing.

Three Companies Partner To Bring More Drones to California’s North Coast Vineyards


Imaging processing company VineView, drone manufacturer SkySquirrel Technologies, and drone operator Hawk Aerial have partnered to bring more drones to California’s North Coast wine country. All three companies have experience offering their particular services to California vineyards but the partnership will allow them to pool resources and take small advantage of smaller drones to monitor and map crops at small vineyards.

The Marketing Director Bryan Soderblom said,“We found drones most-efficient for smaller- to medium-sized vineyards — less than 100 acres. Above that, it’s more efficient with an airplane.”

According to the partnered companies their drones can cover about 1 acre a minute, meaning they can map between 20-25 acres using one battery charge on a drone. As batteries for drones get better they see drones taking over more responsibility from airplanes.

The team at Drone Dossier sees this as a very important story for agricultural drones. Right now, for larger areas planes may be more efficient (not to mention they can carry more sensors), but as drones and battery technology progresses planes will loose any advantage they have now. Still it should be a lesson for anyone getting into the agricultural drone space…you need to realize your limits right now and not over promise. Also, in order to truly be effective you need to merge ability in flying, imaging and marketing your services, which may mean partnerships.

Using Drones to Grow Better Wheat


The USDA just awarded Kansas State University with $300,000 to see if small drones can be used to increase wheat yields.

Drones in the study will gather data using on-board spectral and thermal imaging equipment. This data will be used to help create better algorithm that can help predict wheat growth.

The drones are an efficient and cost effective way to track the growth of the wheat can provide more data for researchers to better predict wheat yields.

DJI Unveils New Agricultural Drone in China


DJI launched its new MG-1S agricultural drone in China in late November. The drone is an upgraded version of the MG-1, DJI’s first foray into agricultural drones last year.

The MG-1 has clear dominance of China’s agricultural drone market accounting for 70% of sales to Chinese farmers. However, total sales ares still in the thousands as many Chinese farmers lack the capital needed to invest in expensive agricultural drones. The MG-1 (branded Agras MG-1) is also available in the US, but sales numbers were unavailable.

DJI is the clear leader in consumer and camera drones, but clearly they want to get into the rapidly developing market for agricultural drones. There is no information about when the MG-1S will be available for purchase outside of China.

Consumer Reports: 10 Ways Drones are Changing Your World

Consumer Reports put out a great summary of the way drones are already changing the world we live in. Their ten choices include:

  • Package delivery
  • Agriculture
  • Photos and videos
  • Humanitarian aid
  • First responders
  • Safety inspections
  • Insurance
  • Internet access
  • Hurricane and tornado forecasting
  • Wildlife conservation

The team at Drone Dossier mulled over the list and decided to break it down into what it believes is the biggest business opportunity, what will have the most immediate positive impact, and which has the biggest opportunity to change the world.

Biggest Business Opportunity: Agriculture


In the future, the agricultural sector will be the bread-and-butter of the commercial drone industry. Right now the worldwide market for agricultural drones is roughly $500 million. According to one study the worldwide drone market will be $3.70 billion by 2022.

The Bank of America Merrill Lynch projects agriculture to make up 80% of the commercial drone market in coming years and has the potential to generate $82 billion worth of economic activity in the U.S. between 2015 and 2025. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers found the total available market for the agricultural drone business to be over $32 billion.

Talk about a sector that is primed for major growth. If things continue on the current trend, agricultural drones will transform the way food is produced.

First Responders (Most immediate positive impact)


In emergency situations drones can be a lot of help. Drones have already been used after major disasters like earthquakes to visually comb areas that are not yet accessible to emergency personnel. This allows paths of entry to be found and people at risk to be identified.

Numerous law enforcement agencies and emergency response teams are looking into using drones to do everything to deliver defibrillators to identify bodies. Additionally, search and rescue authorities in places like Switzerland (where over 3,000 go missing annually—mostly due to hiking) are now deploying drones to help in rescue efforts.

Drone manufacturer DJI recently partnered with Irish startup DroneSAR to create an app that, “Seamlessly integrates a drone’s unique aerial perspective on life-and-death searches into incident management software, ensuring rescue crews can use drones effectively to save lives.”

Internet access (Biggest opportunity to change the world)


As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and in the history of the world there has never been a tool that offers as much ‘knowledge’ as the internet. While most of us take the internet for granted, the fact remains that a large portion of the world’s population still has no reliable access to the internet.

Facebook has poured a lot of money into their Aquila drones that basically use solar power to hover over areas and beam down high speed internet. While still in development, internet ‘raining’ drones like the Aquila have the power to provide affordable internet access to large swaths of the earth that have no current access.

Facebook is already in discussions with countries like Indonesia and India to use Aquila drones to beam internet to rural populations. When (not if) internet drones do start taking to the sky it will truly make the internet global and will unlock its power to billions.