Drones reach new heights in agriculture
Farmers are embracing unmanned aerial technology for input delivery and more
A drone on most row-crop farms within the next 10 years. It’s a bold prediction, one that Taylor Moreland would never have made just a few years ago when agricultural drones were still considered a novelty.
But the rapid advancement, acceptance and adoption of this technology by farmers and agribusinesses have made the concept not only possible but probable.
“These aren’t just drones anymore. They’re ag equipment,” Moreland said. “I don’t see the technology replacing custom application, but just like a lot of farmers have their own spray rigs, I see them having their own spray drones for certain jobs.”
As owner of Agri Spray Drones in Boonville, Mo., Moreland has watched the technology soar in popularity from his unique vantage point as a pioneer in the industry. Seemingly overnight, unmanned aerial vehicles—commonly known as drones—have evolved from toy to tool as farmers embrace them for spraying crops, sowing cover crop seed and applying fertilizer, among other uses.
“I started playing with drones on the farm back in 2014, taking pictures, using imagery and doing crop scouting,” Moreland said. “They were cool, but you really couldn’t do anything with the visual data you were gathering. I felt like the technology was being oversold at the time.”
A few years later, when the first spray drones started making their way into the United States, Moreland took a closer look. This time, he recognized the potential benefits of being able to apply crop protection products on fields where aerial spraying was the only option.
“About that time, around 2017-2018, demand for fungicide application was rising, but the supply of pilots was not keeping pace,” Moreland said. “Fields weren’t being sprayed because we couldn’t get airplanes booked. That’s what got me looking into spray drones. The first ones were very small, only holding about 2.5 gallons and kind of difficult to use, but we got one and began testing its viability.”
Those early spray drones were useful to a point, he said, but the real game-changer was when the industry leader, DJI, came out with the Agras T20 spray system in 2020. With a 5-gallon capacity and ability to cover about 25 acres per hour, the technology was now becoming practical and sophisticated enough for widespread adoption.
“Originally, I didn’t intend to actually sell these drones,” Moreland said. “I was just looking to provide a service for farmers. But I realized that the suppliers in the U.S. at that time didn’t understand agriculture at all. They didn’t understand how farmers operated. They didn’t understand the sense of urgency when it comes to application season. That’s why we became a dealer—not to sell the drone as a platform, but to provide it as a solution for growers.”
Agri Spray sold its first Agras T20 in January 2021 and, in less than three years, has deployed more than 1,000 drones into the agricultural industry. The company not only works directly with farmers but also with businesses such as MFA that are adding these drones to their precision technology toolboxes. Based on the 2023 CropLife/Purdue Precision Ag Adoption Survey, drone use among ag retailers is now in the 30% range, and dealers surveyed anticipate that percentage will reach 54% by 2025. This compares with usage rates in the single digits just a few years ago.
“Spray drones have become the new hot topic in agriculture,” said Allen Scott, MFA Incorporated precision agronomy logistics specialist. “Farmers are really starting to see the potential, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity for this technology in the future.”
Moreland attributes the growth in agricultural drone adoption to a combination of factors.
“First of all, I would say it is demand-driven. More and more farmers are recognizing the return on investment for fungicides, and drones are an effective tool to make those late-season applications,” he said. “There is also the supply side. Drones have become more available, affordable and efficient. And then there’s awareness. We went from selling our first drone to the nation’s largest supplier in about 15 months. That wasn’t just due to the fact that we could get more drones. We understood the technology, the solution that it was providing and how to use it. We also provide a lot of education to farmers so they understand it as well.”
Drones aren’t new to MFA, which actually purchased its first drones—camera-only DJI models—in 2018 to enhance crop-scouting services. The idea was to capture aerial crop imagery that could help agronomists more accurately pinpoint problem areas such as insect and disease infestations and nutrient deficiencies. Input delivery wasn’t even on the radar.
That changed when MFA purchased two Agras T20 drones from Moreland’s company last year and began testing their applications in research plots. This summer, one of MFA’s Ag Experience interns, Addie Thessen, spearheaded a project to compare coverage and drift when spraying at different heights above the crop canopy. This fall, Scott plans to seed cover crops and apply fertilizer to evaluate the effectiveness of the drone’s spreading system, an optional feature for DJI T-series units.
“We used the spray drones on one of our soybean plots down in the Bootheel because the plants got too tall for our Gator to make a post application,” Scott said. “It was only about an acre-sized plot, so the drone was much more efficient than trying to get a big sprayer in there. It was our first real-world test of the spray drone, other than some small-scale trials, and it worked really well.”
As MFA continues to evaluate how the technology will fit into its operation, Scott said the Agronomy Division has recently developed policies to approve third-party companies to offer drone services to customers. Several MFA locations are already working with drone operators in this contract capacity.
One example is Ally Ag Force, a drone application company launched in 2022 by Dan Haney and his family in Taos, Mo. Haney, a recently retired National Guard veteran, brought in his son, Levi, a student at the University of Central Missouri, to help get the business off the ground. They completed their first job last February, spraying burndown chemicals for a neighboring farmer who planned to renovate some hay ground.
“Growing up in Southeast Missouri, I would see crop dusters all the time. But you don’t see that many up here in Central Missouri, and that’s where I recognized an opportunity for drones,” Dan said. “I started running the numbers on what it would cost and what I thought we could do, put together a business plan and pitched it to my family. I was almost hoping they’d talk me out of it, but everyone thought it made sense.”
In August, the Haneys were invited to Centralia MFA’s Plot Day to demonstrate the technology. Soon after, they had several requests for their services, ranging from spraying fungicide on corn to spreading cover crop seed.
“After that field day, we were hired to spray 40 acres of fungicide on corn,” Levi said. “As soon as the farmer saw what the drone could do, he went back to MFA, bought more chemical and said, ‘Hey, can you do some more?’ It turned into 150 acres by the end of the day.”
While aerial application of traditional row-crop inputs is currently making up much of the agricultural drone demand, the sky is the limit for what they can do, Moreland said.
“The nice thing about a drone is that you can also use it for ponds and lakes, terrace channels, field edges and spots where you’ve had weed flushes or fertilizer skips,” he added. “You can do your invasive species management with it and spray trees and fencerows. Drones are the perfect platform for those uses because they’re easily deployable and won’t damage anything on the ground.”
Drones have also found their niche in cranberry production, forestry, wetland management and the nursery industry. They are particularly useful in specialty crops, which are typically labor-intensive and high-dollar operations. Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist, said drones are becoming popular to spray pastures that are too rough or steep for ground rigs to cover. And researchers are also testing the ability of drones to pollinate orchards and vineyards.
“We’ve even done work with the University of Missouri painting greenhouses with drones,” Moreland added. “The process uses a chalk-based paint that acts like a temporary shade canopy, which can be washed off later. We’re trying the same thing with poultry and cattle barns that have galvanized roofs to help make them cooler in the summer. Drones are phenomenal for that application.”
Though uses may be endless, Scott said he believes size constraints will eventually limit growth of the technology. While the Agras T40, with a 10.5-gallon capacity, is currently the biggest model DJI offers, the Federal Aviation Administration just approved an agricultural drone with a 70-gallon capacity. Manufactured by the autonomous aircraft company Pyka, it’s the largest unmanned aircraft system to receive commercial approval.
“How big can these things get without actually having a person flying it?” Scott said. “I believe we are experiencing the upper limit of the size a drone can reach and still be practical. At a certain point, they’re going to get too difficult to transport and handle. I could be wrong. This technology could change overnight. But there are a lot of unknowns for me to truthfully say what might happen.”
Regardless, Scott added, drones have undoubtedly found a place to land in agriculture, but how far they will go in the future is still up in the air.
“On good days, in good fields and in good conditions, drones aren’t in a position to outcompete airplanes and custom applicators,” Scott said. “But you get into situations where it might be a little wet, the field is small, there are specialty crops being grown, equipment is booked up or growers don’t want big ground rigs running through their crops, drones can fill that gap. I think that’s where they are going to succeed.”
DON'T JUST WING IT
When it comes to drone technology in agriculture, there is a lot to know—more than we can possibly cover here—but here are a few important pieces of information that many farmers and prospective unmanned aerial vehicle pilots often ask.
How much do spray drones cost?
Taylor Moreland, owner of Agri Spray Drones, said a DJI Agras T20 and its full package runs about $35,000, which includes spare batteries, recharger and tanks as well as in-house training and Federal Aviation Administration licensing. Operators will also need a generator to charge batteries and run the mixing and pumping system, and certain sizes of drones may require a trailer for transport. In all, a complete setup could run around $50,000.
What do drone applicators charge?
This will vary by company, but Moreland said he suggests charging per-acre rates for field coverage that are competitive or slightly more than what a helicopter service might charge for aerial application. An hourly rate might be more cost-effective for smaller jobs and site-specific treatments.
How many acres can drones spray per hour?
As a rule of thumb, Moreland explained, 2 gallons per acre is commonly labeled as the carrier volume for most aerial-applied products. At that rate, spray drones on the market today can cover 15 to 40 acres per hour, depending on capacity. This range includes landing and refill time.
How long can a spray drone fly on one battery?
Flight times vary depending on battery and ambient temperature, payload weight, wind and how quickly the drone disperses its inputs. With the DJI T-series drones, Moreland said one battery charge lasts approximately two tankloads (10 to 15 minutes) when spraying at a 2-gallons-per-acre rate.
What regulations do spray drone operators have to follow?
The FAA officially published rules for commercial drone operations in 2016, but those rules have been continually evolving—especially when it comes to agriculture. In a nutshell, to operate spray drones in the U.S., pilots need proper licensing and certification mandated by the FAA as well as state agriculture, business and transportation departments. Additional permissions may also be required by the FAA for certain materials and types of drones. Commercial applicators will also need liability insurance. Dealers such as Moreland will usually help operators navigate the training, testing, licensing and regulatory process.
Find out more at agrispraydrones.com/faq or faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators.
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