How To Buy an Agriculture Drone: An In-Depth Buyer’s Guide

pre-flight plan for quadcopter on DroneFly

Who This Guide is For

This buyer’s guide is for farmers and agriculture service professionals who are contemplating using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the health of crops and livestock.

It covers everything you need to know, including the leading drones used for precision ag; popular imaging software packages & services; a short list of UAV surveyors; and the latest FAA regulations governing use of drones in agriculture.

  • If you are interested in flying your own fixed wing or multi-rotor agriculture drone, then this guide will tell you everything you need to know to select and buy the right UAV for your needs.
  • If you plan to hire a third party to survey crops for you, then this guide will make you a smarter buyer.

In this guide you’ll learn:

  • how & why drones are used to scout fields & crops, to check the health of plants
  • the benefits & limitations of using drones vs. other aerial survey methods
  • the different software and hardware components required
  • how to get started – including a short list of ready-to-fly drone packages designed specifically for agriculture

TIP: Use the Contents box in the upper right corner of this guide to view everything contained this guide, and to jump straight to what you’re after.

For Professionals Only

Agriculture drones are not your run-of-the-mill consumer-grade camera drone or racing drone. They are advanced data gathering tools for serious professionals. Prices for complete, ready-to-fly ag drone systems range from $1,500 to over $25,000.

There are two types of professionals who might want to own an agriculture drone:

  1. farmers who want to fly their own imaging missions; and,
  2. agriculture service providers and others who fly drones for farmers.

If you fit into either of these categories, then please note:

The FAA views all agricultural drone activity as commercial drone operation. This means the drone operator must have a Remote Pilot Certificate to fly. 

This is true, even if no money changes hands.

To learn more about the FAA’s new pilot requirements, check out our drone operator safety guide.

In other words, there’s no such thing as an amateur agriculture drone operator.

If you get pitched by a drone outfit claiming they don’t need a remote pilot certificate to survey your field, then run – far, far away.


The Top 3 Agriculture Drones (Ready To Fly)

Here are the most popular ready-to-fly agriculture drone systems in the world. Except for the Phantom, all are ready-to-fly and come equipped with all the software, sensors and hardware you’ll need.

Top 3 Fixed Wing Ag Drones

  1. senseFly eBee Ag: very popular w/ ag service providers; full drone-to-tractor workflow.
  2. PrecisionHawk Lancaster: widest range of aerial sensors available; a complete software + hardware solution.
  3. Trimble: this French company recently received a 333 exemption to operate its UX5 drone in the US. Hardware, software and processing. Expensive.

Top 3 Multi-Rotor Ag Drones

  1. AGCO Solo:  Based on the new 3DR Solo quadcopter, this add-on kit includes an RGB camera for color imaging and a near-infrared camera for monitoring plant health.Includes one year of Agribotix imaging software. The package produces high-resolution orthomosaics, NDVI maps, and Field Health and Management Zone maps.
  2. senseFly eXom: a new quad developed by French drone manufacturer, Parrot, specifically for agriculture applications. Includes an image processing pipeline based on Pix4D.
  3. DJI multi-rotors: the Phantom 2 is the most popular “beginner” agriculture drone sold to date. Its replacements, the Phantom 3 and Phantom 4, kick it up a notch with DJI’s new GPS autopilot software and a higher-quality camera/gimbal with more control. More recently, PrecisionHawk released DJIFarmer (see latest price), an integrated crop surveying add-on for DJI’s commercial multi-rotors, the Matrice 100 and Matrice 600.

Ag Drone Service Providers

There are thousands of drone operators in the US today, and about one-third claim to offer services useful to farms.

With the FAA’s new regulations, which allow for new pilots to get their remote pilot certificate by simply taking a written test, no doubt thousands of new operators will soon be hitting the market.

But that doesn’t mean they know how to fly safely. Nor does it mean they know how to shoot orthomosaic images for your farming operation.

Here are a few reputable, experienced & certified drone operators and image service providers that currently serve agriculture businesses:

  • Empire Unmanned (ID): Empire was the first ag drone service to receive a 333 exemption in the US. Robert Blair is one of the principals and is one of the most knowledgeable speakers on using drones for precision agriculture.
  • Vine Rangers (CA): this Northern CA service provider specializes in servicing wine growers.
  • AeroHarvest: Like Vine Rangers, this CA company serves vineyards with leak detection and optimizing irrigation schedules.
  • AgWorx: A specialist in precision agriculture from Raleigh, NC. that handles everything from harvest timing to software applications for data collection on the ground and in the air.
  • Digital Harvest (formerly BOSH Precision Agriculture): This Newport News, VA, business specializes in collecting images, processing data and producing useful agricultural informatics.
  • Leading Edge Technologies: Based in Winnebago, Minnesota, Leading Edge converts drone data into farm intelligence for applications such as grain management and other precision agriculture solutions.
  • PrecisionHawk: This startup from Raleigh, NC, is creating an algorithm marketplace to help interpret and correlate data collected from satellites and drones. They also manufacture the Lancaster fixed wing drone and supply DJI with ag-specific add-ons. A leader in the industry.
  • Trimble Navigation: Aside from its massive GPS business, this Sunnyvale, CA, outfit offers many applications for precision ag, from yield monitoring to water management.
  • Wilbur-Ellis: This $3 billion farm equipment supplier is working to bring satellite and drone imagery to AgVerdict, its software platform for agronomists.
  • Measure32:  This full-service drone operator provides image survey and processing for a wide range of industries, including agriculture. They operate over 300 drones and UAVs for business purposes.

For a larger collection of agriculture drone service providers & pilots, check out DroneList.com.


What Is Precision Agriculture?

Precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops.

The goal of precision agriculture is to more efficiently apply a farm’s limited resources to gain maximum yield. A primary method for doing that is to minimize variability of crop health within and across fields. To learn more about precision agriculture, read this excellent overview published by The Economist.

Due to its nature, precision agriculture requires a LOT of data to work. The three main types of data include:

  1. geo-tagged images: visible and multi-spectral aerial images taken of fields, over time; this is where drones play
  2. equipment performance: real time feedback & logs provided by sensor-equipped manned and unmanned equipment such as seeders, spreaders, tractors and combines
  3. management data: crop yield and other data provided by farm operators

The use of precision agriculture technologies is growing very quickly, globally, according to Technavio.

Where Do Drones Fit in Precision Agriculture?

Drones are really just a new, high-precision way to obtain geo-tagged images from the air.

Compared with other aerial survey methods, drones generate more precise and more frequent data about the condition of crops. This data is used in many ways to improve the performance of a farm’s operation.

For surveying fields of less than 50 hectares in size, drones are cheaper than manned aircraft surveillance, manned scouting and satellite imaging.

Some claim that the new FAA rules will restrict the usefulness of drones for agriculture, because under the new Part 107 rules, all observation and measurement must be taken by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. This becomes an issue for fields and farms that are bigger than VLOS.

But the vast majority of farms don’t have this problem.

According to this report, there are approximately 2.1 million farms in America. The average size is 434 acres. Small family farms, averaging 231 acres, make up 88 percent, meaning that 1.85 million farms can benefit immediately from ag drones.

Drones are used to gather a variety of image-based data about the condition of crops, fields and livestock – including:

  • plant height
  • plant count
  • plant health
  • presence of nutrients
  • presence of disease
  • presence of weeds
  • relative biomass estimates
  • 3D / volumetric data (piles, patches, holes and hills)

For livestock operations, drones can be used to monitor the location, status and movement of animals over time with more frequency and at a lower cost than other means.

Drone data is used to do farming jobs more effectively and efficiently, including:

  • Crop Scouting – replace men with drones
  • Crop Health Monitoring – biggest ROI, by far
  • Field Surveying/Scouting (before planting)
  • Nitrogen Recommendation
  • Yield Monitoring
  • Plant Stress Monitoring
  • Drought Assessment
  • Senescence Analysis
  • Leaf Area Indexing
  • Phenology
  • Tree Classification
  • and more

To take quick action, orthomosaic images generated by drones can be fed into an agricultural program like SMS by Ag Leader, SST Summit®, FarmRite®, Stratus®, Sirrus®” or other software tools to create prescription maps.

Prescription maps inform the farm operator where & what specific actions are needed, such as increasing or decreasing nitrogen spread on trouble spots. Prescription maps can be transferred directly into a precision applicator (sprayer) like a John Deere® or Case IH®.

Here’s a great 7-minute video segment produced by Iowa Public TV that explains why more and more farmers are incorporating drones into crop management.

Drones & Agronomy Management Systems

Because of the amount of data required, many precision farmers use agronomy management systems to collect and integrate all of the data flowing to/from their sensor-equipped tractors, combines, drones and other equipment found on farms today.

Leading agronomy management platforms include AgOS by AgWorks and MyAgCentral.

Drones interact with agronomy management systems by feeding them with rich, detailed and timely geo-tagged images. Using this data, farmers can react more quickly and more precisely than they can using other aerial imaging methods.


Drone Advantages Over Other Aerial Imaging Systems

By some measures, 80% of the global drone industry revenues touch agriculture in some way.

But why would farmers – some of the most risk-averse people on Earth – adopt such a new technology?

Perhaps it’s because agriculture drones offer clear advantages over other crop monitoring methods including satellite imaging, manned scouting and manned aircraft. These advantages include:

  • Cheaper Imaging: for fields less than 50 hectares in size, drones are considerably less expensive than satellites or manned aircraft surveillance.
  • Greater Precision: drone cameras take centimeter-level images that reveal much more detail about a crop’s condition.
  • Earlier Detection of Problems: because drones survey more frequently, weeds, pests and other abnormalities are detected earlier.
  • Total-Field Scouting: instead of riding an ATV around the perimeter to scout perhaps 5% of a field, now every field can be scouted 100% using drones.
  • 3D/Volumetric Data: drone images can be used to calculate the volume of piles, holes, hills and patches. These can be compared to Infrared images to detect density issues like hot spots in a crowded beet field, or to identify contour problems such as north slope shade issues.
  • More Frequent Index Reporting: drones offer a cost-effective way to monitor crops more frequently for key indices like CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index), CWSI (crop water stress index) and NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index).

In day-to-day operations, these advantages help farmers catch problems faster and react more quickly, which can save thousands of dollars in crop losses per field.

Long-term, the data generated by drones help farmers gain a more accurate & detailed picture of how their crops are reacting to their management strategies, which can lead to more effective use of limited resources.

After all, a typical family farmer only gets 40 chances (seasons) to get things right… every extra bit of knowledge helps!


How Flying Cameras Measure Crop Health

Most agriculture drones depend on multi-spectral imaging to spot problems with a crop’s health; specifically, they look at changes over time in visible light (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) light reflected by crops. These images are taken over time by drones, manned aircraft or satellites.

It is possible to detect plant health from these images because plants reflect different amounts of visible green and NIR light, depending on how healthy they are. By measuring the changes in visible and NIR light reflected from a crop, we can spot potential health issues.

This image explains the general idea:

Agriculture Drones Buyers Guide - how NIR is used to measure plant health

 

To monitor changes in plant health over time, drone images are processed to calculate a tracking index called NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index), which is a measure in the difference between light intensity reflected by the field in two different frequencies:

NDVI is the ratio of near infrared (NIR) reflectivity minus visible red reflectivity (VIS), divided by NIR plus VIS:

NDVI = (NIR-VIS)/(NIR+VIS)

Here is what you see when you compare a normal camera image of a winter wheat field to a NDVI-processed image of the same field:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - NDVI images of winter wheat field courtesy Agribotix
VIS and NDVI images of winter wheat field (courtesy Agribotix)

Notice how the NDVI-enhanced image (right) does a great job separating the healthy wheat stalks (green) from dying edges (red) and the dry earth (black/brown).

There is some debate over whether NDVI is the right index or whether the simple difference between light spectrums (NIR – VIS) is more useful.  Agribotix put together a great writeup on this debate and the misconceptions re. what NIR spotting can and cannot do today.

NDVI is the most popular index calculated using drone data, but there are many others. Some may be more or less important to your farm, depending on your situation. Some of the more popular indices include:

  • CWSI (crop water stress index): measures temperature differentials to detect/predict water stress in plants. Requires a thermal imaging sensor and the use of a nearby weather station.
  • CCCI (canopy chlorophyl content index): detects canopy nitrogen levels using three wavebands along the red edge of the visible spectrum. Requires visible and near infrared cameras.

If you want to dive deep into this emerging science of agriculture image processing, here’s a list of the latest research.


First Decision: Fixed Wing or Multi-Rotor?

AgEagle RAPID - flying over field
AgEagle RAPID – flying over field

Fixed wing drones like the AgEagle RAPIDPrecisionHawk Lancaster and SenseFly eBee Ag are often preferred by farmers because they can cover more area and spend more time in the air than a multi-rotor platforms like the DJI Phantom 3.

That said, they can’t do everything and are best suited for large, open-field scanning.

Fixed wing drones often carry more payload than a multi-rotor – which means more sensors – so more information can be captured in a single flight. This can reduce the total time to collect data for a given acre.

Fixed wing drones are more expensive, too – they cost $5,000 to $25,000 or more after being fitted with sensors.

ag drone over field

Multi-rotor ag drones like DJI’s Matrice 100 (with PrecisionHawk DJIFarmer) are better-suited to precision imaging of small/constrained areas and 3D scanning of fields and objects, due to their maneuverability.

Flight times for quads and other multi-rotors are about 1/2 that of a fixed wing drone.

Payloads on many multi-rotors are less than fixed wings, so most only carry one or two sensors. As a result, covering an entire field can take twice as long as with a fixed wing.

Multi-rotor drones are generally cheaper than fixed wings, starting at around $1,500-$3,500 for a professional-grade camera drone with software for agriculture image processing.

The Best of Both Worlds

Rather than opting for one type of drone, some farmers and operators purchase less expensive versions of both.

A fixed wing drone is used for large open spaces where long, unobstructed straight-line passes are possible; and, a small inexpensive multi-rotor is used for spot-checking trouble areas more closely, for quick scouting missions and for handling area a plane cannot fly over.

Lots of farmers today start by buying a ready-to-fly $1,500 quadcopter like DJI’s new Phantom 4.

After testing the ROI of drone surveying, they may upgrade to more expensive and less time-consuming solutions.


Getting The Data: Imaging & Sensors

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - visual vs multispectral vs 2D vs 3D

There are many choices of imaging sensors available today for agriculture drones. Options range from $200 for a GoPro HD camera to well over $50,000 for a hyper-spectral camera.

Cameras

Horizon Precision Chroma Camera Drone - camera and gimbal
Horizon Precision Chroma – camera and gimbal

The most common and cheapest type of sensor is a high-resolution camera, which takes visible wavelength images (VIS). Several of these cameras can also take near-infrared images (NIR) when equipped with the right filters.

The minimum image resolution required for agriculture applications is 12 megapixels, which popular drone cameras such as the GoPro Hero 3 and Hero 4 are capable of capturing.

In contrast to what most photographers will tell you, you want a camera with a wide-field, wide-angle or “fish-eye” lens, as these lenses tend to capture more area in a single shot.  Don’t worry about the image distortion – quality image processing software eliminates this during processing.

Some of the more popular cameras used in agriculture today include:

  • Sony QX1: compact, lightweight mirrorless camera takes 20 megapixel high precision Images in RAW and JPEG. VIS images only.
  • Canon EOS Rebel SL1 DSLR Camera Kit: captures VIS images only.
  • Zenmuse X3: Gimbal and camera system used on DJI systems. VIS images only.
  • GoPro Hero 3 and Hero 4: lightweight and weather-proof, GoPros are often used on lower-cost quadcopter drones. It’s probably the most popular ag camera in use today. VIS images only.
  • MaxMax offers a line of Nikon, Sony and other model near-infrared (NIR) cameras priced from $500 to $5,000. NIR and VIS versions.

Multi-Spectral

AgEagle RAPID - MicaSense multispectral sensor
MicaSense Red multispectral sensor

Multi-spectral imaging sensors allow you to see things you cannot see in the visual spectrum, such as wet patches on the ground.

The MicaSense Red multi-spectral sensor (shown above) lists for $6,450.

Another option is the Sentera NDVI upgrade for the DJI Phantom series drones. This is a new ultra-lightweight NDVI sensor for Phantom 3 and Phantom 4. The DJI gimbaled camera is not modified. Captures visual-band (VIS), near-infrared (NIR), and NDVI data together during a single flight.

Thermal

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - wet soil vs dry soil
Thermal Sensors can detect wet vs. dry soil

Airborne thermal sensors can see hotspots and measure changes in land and plant temperature over time.

Thermal sensors can also detect the presence of water due to its cooling effect, which can be helpful in spotting crop damage due to drought and/or seasonal issues.

LIDAR

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - LIDAR imaging
LIDAR imaging can detect elevation changes & drainage issues

LIDAR is a precise remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.  LIDAR is commonly used to measure buildings and land masses with precision, and to develop an accurate 3D model of an area.

LIDAR sensors are very expensive, often costing $60,000 to $150,000.


Surveying Crops By Drone: The Process

Whether you use a fixed wing or a quad to survey your fields, the process of gathering useful data with a drone consists of 4 basic steps, as follows:

1. Plan Your Flight

pre-flight plan for quadcopter on DroneFly

Many of the latest agriculture drones come with flight planning software that lets you to draw a box around the field you want to survey (on a Google Earth map or similar), and a flight plan will be created for you automatically. Some even plan the camera shots for you, automatically.

Then, you upload the flight path into your drone and get ready to fly.

If you are using a home-built platform or an older ground control station, then you may need to manually code or set each turn point.

2. Fly & Shoot

best drones for data acquisition

With your flight plan loaded and drone armed, it’s time to start flying – and shooting images.

With a fully-integrated system like the PrecisionHawk Lancaster, this part is easy.

Basically, you just send the drone on its way and the system will automatically take images using the onboard camera and sensors as the drone executes its flight path. The drone will use GPS location to trigger each shot.

After finishing its run, the drone lands automatically (usually all goes well). Easy!

If you don’t use a completely integrated drone package, then one person will need to take the shots manually while a GPS autopilot or another pilot flies the aircraft.

If you are manually shooting your images, please bear these points in mind:

  • to capture high resolution data correctly for ag purposes, your images need to overlap with each other by at least 70%
  • shoot images based on GPS location, not time, to ensure you get the image overlap and the coverage needed

3. Process Images

The most challenging part of the agriculture drone surveying process is translating the hundreds of high-res images you just captured into information you can actually use. But don’t worry, it’s not that hard to do (or learn).

Most farm drone operators need to process hundreds of visual, thermal and multi-spectral images per flight, to identify changes in crop health over time or to spot anomalies.

All of these images need to be stitched together, converted into orthomosaic 2D images, processed and analyzed for you to get useful information from the flight.

Agriculture Drones Buyers Guide - multiple hi res images captured and ready for processing
Aerial drone images captured & ready for stitching

That’s a lot of data processing. And your home PC probably isn’t up to it.

This is where image processing software and services come in.

Popular Image Processing Software for Agriculture

Most agriculture drone operators use the following tools to turn aerial images into useful data. All of them use cloud-based processing to take the load off of you:

  • Pix4D: this popular & expensive image processing platform converts a series of aerial images into 2D orthomosaics, 3D point clouds and 3D mesh models. Pix4D can also calculate NDVIs, DVIs, SAVIs and custom indices as needed. To use Pix4D, you upload your images, let them process, then receive your reports and visuals typically within minutes to a few hours.  Pricing is $350 per month to rent or $8,700 to own.
  • AgEagle’s RAPID 
  • senseFly’s Postflight Terra 3D: based on Pix4D, this is senseFly’s software for converting aerial imagery into 2D orthomosaics, 3D models and differential indices. Terra 3D is provided free with all eBee drones. 
  • PrecisionMapper by PrecisionHawk: now called Data Mapper, this is a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data. Works with some, but not all, UAS platforms.
  • Trimble: designed for professional land surveyors, Trimble’s Photogrammetry Module office software to create detailed orthophotos, digital elevation models, point clouds, volume calculations and 3D models. Trimble’s general-purpose Inpho UASMaster Module can be used for advanced photogrammetric processing.
  • DataMapper by PrecisionHawk: a 100% cloud-based platform that supports image capture, differential processing and algorithmic analysis for many industries. Their unique Algorithm Marketplace lets you pick & apply specific algorithms to extract useful data such as NDVI, DVI, plant counts, scouting reports and more.
  • Correlator3D™ by SimActive:  advanced photogrammetric processing client software for use on high-end PCs. Several aerial survey firms such as AeroVironment use them. Performs aerial triangulation (AT) and produces dense digital surface models (DSM), digital terrain models (DTM), point clouds, orthomosaics and vectorized 3D models.
Extracting NDVI data from images
senseFly eBee Ag: extracting NDVI data from images

Some image processing platforms are proprietary to the flying hardware you’re using, and others are general purpose tools that anyone can use. General-purpose packages like Pix4D tend to have a bit of a learning curve.

Image Processing Services for Agriculture

If you don’t want to operate the software yourself, you can upload your data to a data processing service who will generate the reports for you.

4. Review & Take Action

Now that you’ve downloaded your reports and enhanced images, it’s time to see what’s up with your crops.

Perhaps you’ll see issues your scouting crew couldn’t see from the ground:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - NDVI images reveal issues you cant see from the road

Or, maybe you’ll find a problem with water retention after the latest storm:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - wet soil vs dry soil

Or, perhaps you’ll uncover new trouble spots in your corn fields that need a bit more nitrogen:

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - DVI images of 40 acres of corn courtesy Agribotix
DVI images of 40 acres of corn (courtesy Agribotix)

Whatever you find, after you’ve reviewed the health of your crops you can input the data into one of several farm management systems like MyAgCentral to improve your overall view of the farm’s health and operational status.

And take action.


How Much Does It Cost?

Agris Co-op Ltd. in Chatham, Ontario is one of the first precision ag drone imaging service providers to enter the Canadian market.

Cost of ag drone surveying service
Measure.aero’s Cost Estimator tool

Using fixed-wing eBee and Swinglet drones, the firm shoots high-res NDVI images of corn fields in Ontario for a price of about $5 an acre. A single flyover covers 100 acres in 15 minutes, capturing about 300 images for a price of $500.

This compares to a cost of about $1,500-$2,000 for satellite or manned aircraft photography of 100 acres, or $15-20 per acre; and, both these older methods yield less resolution, can be hampered by cloud cover, and take more time to process the images.

On a single day, Agris can cover more than 1,000 acres using a single drone. Images are post-processed in about 2 days.

For another custom full-service cost estimate, check out the nifty Drone Service Cost Calculator on Measure.aero’s website (they have a Sec 333 Exemption, too).


Leading Ready-To-Fly Ag Drones

If you want to fly your own crop surveying drone, but aren’t the type who likes to build custom RC planes, then you’ll be happy to know there are many complete, integrated ready-to-fly agriculture drones available for sale right now.

Some of the best-known complete agriculture flying platforms include:

Multi-Rotors

DJI M100 in flight
DJI M100 in flight

Fixed Wings

Agriculture Drones Buyers Guide - Precision Hawk Lancaster sensor bay details
Precision Hawk Lancaster (sensor bay)
  • PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster: up to $25,000; includes hardware, software and tools for day to day operation, a visual sensor and a multispectral sensor.
  • SenseFly’s eBee Ag
  • Honeycomb’s AgDrone UAS: $15,000; includes visible RGB and multispectral NDVI cameras, flight planning software and unlimited data storage in the cloud
  • AgEagle: $18,800; includes DroneDeploy flight planning/control, training and free replacement wing
  • Precision Drone: $4,500 to $17,500; built by farmers, for farmers

Drone Insurance

For any commercial activity, it’s a good idea to insure yourself against property damage, liability and lawsuits. All you need to do is search “drone lawsuit” to prove it’s worth getting insured.

At Interdrone 2015, Scott Smith of SkySmith shared this example of what it costs to unsure a $20,000 drone (about the cost of a PrecisionHawk Lancaster):

Agriculture Drone Buyers Guide - Insurance example
Drone insurance example (courtesy Scott Smith)

To minimize your risk of loss, make sure you read our Drone Flyer’s Safety Guide.


Options and Upgrades

Without going into detail, you should be aware that some of your system’s components can be upgraded or replaced if you don’t like what you’re currently using.

The most common components upgraded include:

  • Ground Control Station
  • RC Controller
  • Sensors
  • Props

Avoid changing image processing tools and services that have been designed with your hardware in mind.  Something to think about when selecting your first drone.


Common Issues and Concerns

Flying a drone for agriculture involves many of the same issues facing consumer and other commercial drone operators. But there are a few gotchas unique to agriculture, especially when it comes to data and the EPA.

Privacy Laws

There’s a lot of noise in the media today about camera drones taking photos of people without their knowledge. Shotguns have been used to settle the score.

While this could happen on a farm, it’s unlikely.

Nevertheless, your neighbor’s home and fields are their property, and taking unauthorized images of them could violate local or state privacy laws. And state legislatures are on fire, when it comes to drones.

Nineteen US states (Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana,Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) have passed legislation. 6 other states have adopted resolutions.

In 2015 alone, 45 states have considered 156 bills related to drones.

So: make sure you check with a local lawyer to get the latest rules in your region.

Connectivity and Bandwidth

Millions of acres of farmland in the US have little to no online connectivity or cell coverage. If this includes some of your fields, then you need the ability to store captured images & data locally – in the drone or on a nearby ground station – and then upload them later on, when you get back to the office.

Systems such as AgOS by Agriworks operate under the assumption you may not have connectivity at all times.

Don’t choose a drone that requires a live connection to the internet to capture data; it just isn’t a good choice for agriculture.

Data Ownership

The image data generated by agriculture drones can be really useful for lots of people other than farmers.

The EPA, county officials, drone operators, land surveyors and land management officials can get a tremendous amount of value from your geotagged images – if they have access to them.

Some organizations can also do damage to a farm if they have access.

For this reason, ownership of data is a critical legal issue that needs to be dealt with upfront, via contract, whenever you:

  • hire someone to perform an aerial survey of your farm
  • process your images through a third party (software or service provider)
  • share or commingle your images with a third party

By default, the farmer/land owner should always retain full ownership of all data generated by drones flying over his/her property. Then, via contract, these rights can be granted to third parties on a need to know, exception basis.

Bottom line: you never want a third party to own your data.

FAA Regulation & Operator Certification

Flying drones for agriculture is always a commercial operation, according to the FAA.

By law, your drone operator must have FAA operator training and have their remote pilot certificate before they can operate a drone over your land.

If they are not properly certified to fly an unmanned aircraft, then you should not hire them nor let them operate a drone over your property – even if no money changes hands.

EPA Regulations

By law, the EPA has the right to access any and all data generated by drones flying over your property.

There’s nothing you can do about this. For this reason, data retention and storage policies are important to pay attention to.

Interference With Other Aircraft

Crop spraying and other manned aircraft may share the same airspace as an agriculture drone.

For this reason, it is important to file a flight plan with your local airport/FAA office before every drone flight.

Make sure your drone operators understand this, too.


We’re Still In The First Season…

Little known fact: Japan has been using unmanned aerial drones for over a decade, in rice farming.

But in the US & Canada, agriculture drones are very new.

In fact, the first FAA exemption for a precision agriculture drone operator was only awarded in January of 2015.

And according to that operator, Empire Unmanned, only 5-10% of farms are using drones in their precision agriculture operation.


If you have any questions or comments about this buyer’s guide, please leave them below in the Disqus comments section.

 

Andrew Nixon
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Andrew Nixon

Owner/Editor at Best Drone for the Job
Avid drone/UAV enthusiast for many years.
By day, I design websites and mobile apps.
Andrew Nixon
Follow Me

Andrew Nixon

Avid drone/UAV enthusiast for many years. By day, I design websites and mobile apps.

  • Brian

    Good article, but got a few things wrong:

    – Check HoneyComb’s price again (somewhere around $20k)
    – I know it’s your opinion, but in the top 3 fixed wing drones you have the Trimble UX5. Did you take price into account? $53k is much more than any other fixed wing
    – Didn’t research AgEagle much, don’t understand the processing of DroneDeploy
    – Not so sure that Wingscan is still a thing. I think they broke up and the hardware is now Sentera and the software is Aglitix

    I know you have the right, but the article is a bit biased (PH)

    • Thanks for your feedback, Brian.

      Good catch on Wingscan >> Atlasoft. I’ve update the article.

      HoneyComb’s AgDrone starts at around $15k, but it’s easy to drive the price higher.

      Re. the UX5: I’m just trying to offer the best in a range of prices.

      Re. bias: putting a list like this together is tough, with all the choices out there. I have no relationship to any ag drone manufacturer, fwiw.

      Which drones would you add/delete from the list & why?

      • John Van Gieson

        With the exception of the eBee, all the multirotors listed are just consumer level drones and are really not suited for field work. There are sUAS that are built for and dedicated to agricultural like the ATI AgBOT which is fully integrated with the MicaSense RedEdge for NDVI mapping and other applications. http://www.aerialtechnology.com/ati-announces-agbot-uas-updates/

        • Thanks John.

          I agree; on the other hand, a lot of farmers today use the cheaper RTF drones to learn.

          May I ask: do you have a professional relationship w/ ATI (indep. sales rep, works for them, etc.)?

          • John Van Gieson

            Hi Andrew,

            Apologies, I do work for ATI and should have mentioned that. There are a number of other drone companies like Aerialtronics and Draganfly that also make ag specific machines as well. I understand the need for entry level systems and wasn’t detracting from the Solo of Phantom, but the quality of data will general reflect the low price point.

      • Brian

        Andrew,

        I guess I should rephrase my response. I think you have all of the companies that are making an impact for agriculture, just a few phrases I misunderstood. Well written article! For some reason you wrote quite a bit about the PrecisionHawk, but maybe it’s because they have the most information available!

        Thanks again

        • Good product marketing has its advantages 😉

  • Eric

    I’m looking at using drones commercially selling my services to other farmers. Is this possible? Also what do I need to do first to be able to do this?

    • In addition to a suitable drone + multi-spectral camera setup, you will need:
      1. a commercial pilot’s license (~$7,000)
      2. Sec. 333 exemption from the FAA ($100s for the legal fee)
      3. training on how to fly your class of drone – probably fixed wing & quads (online courses exist; contact mfr of drone)
      4. training re. how to properly take multi-spectral images (online or in-person course)
      5. training re. how to process the images using software, to extract useful information (get from the software company)
      6. an understanding of the laws that apply to ownership of data/images (self-learn)

      The FAA says you will soon be able to get a lower-grade “drone operators license” instead of a full pilot’s license, but they haven’t finalized those regulations yet.

      The best way to learn is to talk to someone who currently does this for a living. Recommend you reach out to Robert Blair at Empire Unmanned (ID): Empire was the first ag drone service to receive a 333 exemption in the US. Great guy, knowledgeable, easy to talk to.

      • DREi22

        Hi Andrew! An easy “hack” being used by us small UAV businesses is to get a Hot Air Balloon Operators License which can vary in price, but can be has for as low as $3k. The 333 exemption can be done via templates which are free everywhere with a simple google search (google FAA 333 exemption template). As for the drones themselves I purchased my fixed wing (covers 600 acres on one charge) and my hexacopter for $2k as you just need to know where to look. Hint: RCGROUPS.com Classifieds section.. Hope this helps those who need it!

        DREi
        SkyAerialSolutions.com

    • Eric Cox

      Thanks Andrew. I’ll contact him. Greatly appreciated!

  • amit

    Hi Andrew

    great article!!, a lot of answers about the subject.

    If you got a clue?

    I would like to know who buy this drones and where? small framers? big farms? Corporations?

    How many of them really get something out of it?

    Thanks

    Amit

    • Farms all over the world use drones today to survey crops and cattle. In terms of sheer $$, agriculture is the single largest industry employing drones and drone operators in the world today. Everyone from small, family-owned farms to ginormous corporate farms are using them or experimenting, right now.

      About 5% of farms use some form of UAV/drone aerial surveying today, according to a couple of experts I saw at a recent Las Vegas drone conference.

      Most farm owners purchase an aerial crop surveying service from a precision agriculture outfit that is approved and certified for flying commercial drones. See our list of top ag drone operators, above, for examples.

      Some farmers skip the middlemen to buy drones directly and fly them to survey their own crops.

      The benefits in terms of precision, coverage and cost savings are very real, but I don’t think anyone knows how many farms are improving crop yield due solely to drone-based aerial photography. Usually, drones are used in conjunction with a broader precision ag system that includes lots of other parts.

      Hope this answers your question. Thanks for the compliment 🙂

  • Camilo Matiz

    Hi Andrew

    Thansk a lot for your article. Very Helpful.

    Reviewing 3DR SOLO specifications, is very useful because it can adapt to different cameras.

    For this drone, which camera within which you recommend I can integrate and which includes NIR (because I need images in the visible and images for calculating the NDVI)?

    Thanks.

    Camilo

    • Camilo,

      I agree w/ you about the openness of the 3DR software platform, it’s perfectly suited for customization.

      Sentera makes a series of NDVI sensors that are lightweight enough to fly on the Solo, Phantom 4 and most other light-commercial UAVs: https://sentera.com/sensors/

  • Luca La Bella

    Hi Andrew and thank you for all the precious info!!

    I wanted to ask you if you know how to chronologically order the different products.
    I’m working on my thesis and it’s quite crucial to have a timeline of the UAVs that have been released and actually work.
    Thanks in any case!

    Luca

    • Luca,

      Sorry, but I don’t know the release dates of all of the UAVs in precision agriculture.

      • Luca La Bella

        Thank you anyway for your time!

        Since you seem so kind may I ask you another question?
        Maybe is not your business, so of course you could reply that you have no idea.
        I’m not an expert at all about UAVs, but I have to study them for my final thesis and in particular I have to see how this technology is evolving with respect to different application fields.
        So my question is: as regards mapping functions of drones I was wondering if there were big differences in terms of tools (cameras,…) and softwares (image processing software,…) when “moving” towords different application fields like from construction to agriculture or infrastructure monitoring.
        I’m asking that because for instance in analyzing eBee and eBee Ag I’ve noticed that apart from the name there are almost no differences.
        Maybe I’m wrong and there are additional cameras required for understanding certain aspects of land if we’re talking about agriculture.

        I hope I was enough clear and I thank you so so much.

        Luca

        • Luca,

          The answer is: it depends on your specific need/application.

          For single-sensor imaging applications – visible light, infrared and NDVI – many of the popular multi-rotor and fixed wing drones can be used in many industries, including ag. This is because the cameras and sensors for these applications are light enough to be carried the popular platforms. And, the most popular drones are sophisticated and programmable enough for most applications.

          But when you need to carry 2 or 3 sensors at the same time, or a heavier sensor pacakge like LIDAR, the payload requirement can force you into a more expensive flying platform. At that point, many customers turn to niche / specialized drone manufacturers and industry-specific system integrators for their UAVs. There’s often more software/system integration work involved when you use a niche platform, however.

          Software & data quality also play important roles in which UAV you choose. If you are heavy into precision ag, for example, then you may want a platform that is tightly integrated with your agronomy management system(s). Or, you may want to outsource your surveying to an integrated service provider like PrecisionHawk, who can simply deliver your data as a service. In this case, they choose the platform.

          In general, the trend seems to be that the most popular UAV manufacturers, DJI, 3DR, Yuneec and Parrot, are encroaching into or providing solutions for more and more niches/applications. 3DRobotics just announced that they will focus 100% on commercial applications, abandoning the consumer market to the others.

          Hope this makes sense.

  • David Alamillo

    I recently came across this company and they offer Image analysis for Turf and Ag. I haven’t been able to find companies that offer this a stand alone service

    https://farmsolutions.com/

  • Nathan Faleide

    Great information but I want to say you pricing quote of satellite imagery is grossly mistaken. Average cost of satellite imagery ranges from free to $2/acre. Resolutions truly can’t be as good but coverage can’t be compared. You compared a cost for satellites at $15/acre. This would only be true if you tasked a satellite itself or bought just one scene for an area that may cover an entire county. In most cases satellite and even aerial is quite cheaper through the correct service providers for much less that what you quoted. I hope you correct that statement as it is not correct how most provide those types of remote sensed data.

    • Nathan, Thanks for keeping me honest.

      The subject of pricing for aerial surveys is a complex subject.

      It all depends on what you are trying to do:
      – if you need 50cm resolution surveys once or twice a week, and you will process the images yourself, then yes, you can get satellite or aircraft-based images cheaper
      – on the other hand, if you want high precision daily NDVI reports, then drones may be your only choice

      Here is a great recent writeup on the subject: https://droneapps.co/price-wars-the-cost-of-drones-planes-and-satellites/

  • Alix

    Hi, Just stopping by to say that the part about FAA regulations needs updating! Exciting news!!

    • Thanks, Alix. Exciting – yep! Updates coming next week.

      • rob

        Hello…very interested in getting involved in drones for agriculture. Is there a class or guide to help the process?

  • Rudy Søgaard

    HI.
    Those modified NDVI sensors, are they good enough ?.
    I have been in contact with supplier for agriculture marked, and they say their is real sensors and provide better pictures

  • Rudy Søgaard

    Hi
    Any experience with:
    Sentera upgrade drones
    Precisionshawk, Matrice 100/600 (DJI farmer)

  • J.R.K.

    My question is about the XNiteDJI-X3: DJI Zenmuse X3 Camera Modified for UV-VIS-IR Functionality. Does this camera have VIS and NIR capabilities?

  • Negerek Var

    Hello. We have a farm corparation in Turkey. Esspecially can we use agricultural sprayers with drones. Please give us detailed information about that. We are waiting your reply. Thank You.

    Mehmet Levent Melik
    +90 532 457 57 70

    • Sorry, Negerek, I don’t have any information on sprayers.

  • John Sciarrino

    Glad I found this site. I have been doing aerial photography and video for about 4 years now and want to expand into this field. I am having trouble finding sources to market this service. I started with searching agricultural consultants. Anyone have any other suggestions? I am going to invest in the Micasense imager to fly on one of my hexacopters

  • icadena

    Hi, and what about spraying drones which spread pesticides and fertilizers?

    • Great question.

      I know this is popular in Japan and other countries outside of US/Canada.

      But I haven’t spent time on that side of Ag drones, so I don’t have much to add.

      Perhaps someone could share what they know?

  • Saeid Homayouni

    Andrew, How I can contact you?

    • Leave a message through contact page. We can converse via email.

      • Saeid Homayouni

        Could you design a website for a UAV Precision Ag start-up? if yes, what is the cost?

        Thanks

        Saeid

  • Anuraag Athavale

    One multi-rotor drone can cater to how many hectares to be optimally effiicient?

  • The TuffWing UAV Mapper is an affordable fixed wing that can capture multispectral images for a fraction of the price of the top three fixed wings listed here. Tuffwing.com $2,500.00 for a ready to fly airplane.