This week I had the privileged to attend two conferences in the US focusing on unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in agriculture. The first was the Delta AgTech Symposium in Memphis, Tennessee and the second was the Precision Ag Aerial Show at Decator in Illinois. These conferences are the beginning of my private study as part of my Nuffield Scholarship, thanks to my sponsor the GRDC.
As a forward to this discussion, I do focus more so on the fixed wing type UAS for large area mapping – see why here – and therefore generally do not comment on multi-rotor systems, GoPros, First Person View (FPV) etc even though these were covered at these conferences.
Both conferences were a combination of educated/independent speakers and vendors. There was a couple 1 hour multi-rotor demonstrations at Delta AgTech and two full days of demonstrations of fixed wing and multi-rotors at PAAS. The audience was extremely diverse – from curious farmers, agronomists, all the way to sensor & software companies and interestingly a large presence from insurance companies.
Themes I picked up on:
- Everyone agrees that data needs to be more than pretty pictures – it needs to be actionable. Futhermore, boots still need to be on the ground, ground truthing data, explaining WHY. No one is claiming UAS replaces clever farmers and informed agronomists.
- There is broad acknowledgement that UAS in agriculture needs to show a return on investment but only one case study was mentioned with actual figures.
- Data processing is an issue. Some are claiming the solution is server based i.e. ‘in the cloud’ but acknowledge internet bandwidth is a bottleneck.
- Sensors are a hot topic. Most manufacturers claim they have vastly improved sensors coming. Talk at the moment is around affordable true multispectral combined with irradiance/incident light measurement.
- We were reminded a couple times not to dismiss satellite imagery as an option. Satellite sensors are always improving and getting cheaper. Will we have 10cm GSD from multispectral satellite in 10 years?
- Generally frustration with the FAA on the time it is taking to develop rules around UAS. In saying this, there is acknowledgement that rules are needed.
Some other interesting points picked up over the last week:
- We are starting to see some UAS companies offering early versions of vectorization (i.e. points, lines and polygons) in their server solutions using imagery collected via UAS with the main example variable rate application map of fertilizer in crop based on NDVI. This is not new technology – it has been done with satellite imagery for years.
- With the speed of technology rapidly changing are we considering the upgrade path of current UAS? Can the sensor and GPS be upgraded without buying a whole new system?
Most of the commercial grade fixed wing UAS seem to be able to fly well, have autopilots that just work and acceptable ground control software. Product differentiation will probably be around sensor integration and options, support, innovation and whole system workflows including speed of data processing. This is just a snapshot of what was covered in the last week. I will be compiling a report that encompasses my whole USA/Canada trip which will be available towards the end of the year.