Tools vs. Toys

By Keith Byerly

By Keith Byerly

Fads are a part of life. I have two kids, so believe me, I know how popular fads can be. There are at least a couple of fidget spinners in my house right now. When I was a kid, we had to have slap bracelets. But fads transcend kids. We have fads as adults as well. And I can assure you that in Agriculture, trends are every bit as present as they are in any other walk of life. Our challenge when it comes to being a technology group is that we are constantly looking at new gadgets, gizmos, and concepts. Some of them are obviously great new tools, some are sketchy, half-baked things doomed to failure, and some are questionable. We are continually evaluating and trying to figure the value and longevity of these things, and decide if they are tools or toys.

So over the last several years, there is one piece of technology that has been harder to classify than any other. Some of you may guess it quite easily, but I am talking about UAVs, or Drones. These remotely piloted aircraft came to agriculture several years ago with a tremendous amount of promise. They were going to simplify our lives by covering our fields quickly, efficiently, and perhaps most enticingly, cheaply. We would be able to collect all the images we ever wanted about what was happening in our fields with about any sensor we could imagine, from pictures to NDVI images.

But, it wasn’t quite as easy as advertised. Good whole field photos or sensor data meant lots of time (hours) “stitching” them together after the UAV was back on the ground. If we didn’t “stitch” them together, we couldn’t create a layer that we could plug into our computer to use for management decisions, and we just had a “really cool picture.” Also, to comply with government regulations, we needed two people in the field.  From my standpoint as a person who provides services for growers, it was a great concept that didn’t have commercial viability. Perhaps in time when computers could process data faster, government regulations changed, and we could fly higher and farther, and technology got cheaper so we could cover more acres cost-effectively, we would be interested as a service provider. At that point, we wrote UAV’s off from a business standpoint.

As technology got cheaper, UAV’s found a home. Growers adopted them. You could get a relatively inexpensive UAV that was easy to fly and took good pictures to go “check on” your fields. You got to decide how often to fly, and how much of the field you needed to cover. It was a great tool in your hands because it had practicality that it didn’t have for a service provider. The same can be said for insurance or even some crop scouting. And people that specialize in marketing always have a use for how UAV’s can capture pictures and footage that wouldn’t be safe otherwise.

My take home today is pretty straightforward. Drones definitely have a home in agriculture, but the old adage that one man’s trash is another’s treasure somewhat applies here. From a commercial standpoint, drones still aren’t a very viable option; we still can’t economically collect actionable data on enough acres per day to make it viable as a service. We are still waiting for the tipping point, not today, but someday. However, we realize that they are far more than a toy. They bring tremendous value to some operations, from checking irrigation sprinklers to checking cattle, they save time for growers that can go into other management operations. At the end of the day, UAV’s are a prime example of a toll that brings far more value to some than others.