Are Drones in Your Future?

Author: Amy Volk | Posted: 3/5/2014
Unmanned aerial vehicles could become a profitable revenue source for equipment dealers.

As more progressive farming operations have grasped new technologies to make producing the nation’s and world’s food supply more efficient, progressive equipment dealers and the companies they represent have strived to keep pace with the advancements in agricultural technology. GPS, precision agriculture and more recently, coordination by telematics, comprise the current generations of technological applications that most dealers are and have been assisting customers with for years.

Many dealerships have or are planning to establish departments within the dealership to provide consulting services, expertise and training for the sales and support of precision farming products. Finding and maintaining a qualified management, sales and service team has always been a challenge for dealers. Adding a qualified consulting team with backgrounds in agronomy, fertilizer, seed, chemical, etc., will be of equal challenge for many dealers.

That brings us to the next major advancement in precision agriculture, and specifically, what will the equipment dealer’s role be, if any. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV s), or drones, are replacing more expensive manned aircraft to provide aerial imagery of farm fields. This high-quality imagery is used to provide a real-time assessment of current problems as they occur during the growing season.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently prohibits the commercial use of UAV s, the agency is in the process of developing rules for commercial use. However, researchers and agricultural companies are gearing up to test UAV s and to develop applications for farmers. It is pretty clear to see the advantages UAV s can and ultimately will play in crop production. The economic potential for agriculture is too great for it not to take hold.

With this growing interest in how drones can be valuable new tools in agriculture, the FAA has selected six public entities that will develop and conduct unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research through test sites around the country. These congressionally mandated test sites will conduct critical research into the requirements necessary to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace over the next several years. The selected sites include the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota’s Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

According to an article in Farm Industry News, “UAV s can obtain a vast array of aerial data by flying over farm fields, and the type of data they collect depends on the camera system the UAV is carrying. Most UAVs carry consumer-grade cameras that collect high-resolution still images and video when flying over a field. The user then views the images or footage once the UAV surveys a field to identify abnormal spots that may need to be visited for problems related to nutrients, pests, weeds, moisture or other issues. The benefit lies in being able to scout your fields faster by quickly identifying the problem spots rather than walking a whole field on foot.”

Will equipment dealers have a place in the marketing, sale and servicing of UAVs? Will the equipment manufacturers develop a stake in the distribution? If so, this potentially could be a significant revenue generator for the equipment dealer who has and will provide value-added consulting services and products for their customers. In fact, one NAE DA member, Riesterer & Schnell, a multi-store dealership in Wisconsin, is taking that step into the future. The dealership will begin offering the helicopter-style drones (hexacopters) for sale to agriculture customers through their retail locations.

This proposition is probably not as far-fetched as it may sound. While these types of services have traditionally been provided by farm service and custom application businesses, shouldn’t the dealer of the future be looking at these opportunities? Without question, UAV s could become a complement to the current and future products and services dealers can use to provide to remain a viable partner with their customers.

Maybe robots are next?

JOE DYKES is director of Member Services for the North American Equipment Dealers Association (NAEDA).

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