Steve Cubbage is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.
Steve Cubbage is a precision ag consultant and farmer from Nevada, Mo.

In the field of agriculture, drones are still sitting on the precision runway. Many in the industry still look upon them as more of a hobby than the agronomic workhorse they have the potential to become.

There are several reasons for these perceptions. First of all, many of the hobby perceptions are currently true. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, the only fully legal way to fly a drone is as a hobby and not for commercial purposes.

The other big problem in making drones practical for agriculture is that they are still too physically small and inefficient to make an impact on a large scale. This is also understandable given the restrictive regulatory black cloud still hanging over the industry.

But it hasn’t been all dark skies recently. The silver lining has been that early drone adopters have not been completely deterred. The technology is too intriguing and holds too much potential even at an individual grower level. So, in order to put an “early bird” in the air so to speak—the drones had to be small in order to comply with the only FAA rules currently on the books.

When drones get the green light from the FAA, the agricultural industry is going to treat it as a real business. That means being able to fly more than just a few hundred or thousand acres a day and being able to stay in the air longer than 30 to 45 minutes.

One of the most likely future models for the agricultural drone business is one that mimics a Warren Buffet-owned company called NetJets. It’s just not practical for even most high-powered businessmen to own a multi-million dollar corporate jet by themselves. But it does make sense to own or even rent a piece of one—in essence timeshares for jets. Such a scenario makes total sense for producers who want access to the benefits of a drone but don’t want the overhead and time commitment.

Such businesses may already be forming—laying the groundwork and getting ready to shoot out of the gate as soon as the FAA clears the runway for drones for commercial agriculture purposes. One early-bird company touting a “drone as a service” model is a company called Measure, which is based out of Washington, D.C.

It looks to leverage drone resources across the country and even the world. And from the looks of its website, these aren’t the “baby” drones we’ve seen in the past. Take a look and I think you’ll get the idea: www.measure32.com.

Another company with a fleet of larger drones is one based out of Newport, Va., called Digital Harvest. It has already been providing imagery services for larger commercial farms and specialty crop operations with drones that stay in the air hours at a time—not minutes. Check its services out at http://www.digital-harvest.net.

The irony in this whole drone discussion is that the real value of a drone is not the drone itself. No doubt their coolness factor shot them into the limelight, but it is their potential to vastly improve upon the data and how it is delivered that has both producers and professionals intrigued. Let’s face it, fuzzy red pictures from satellites were not cutting the mustard. The number and quality of the types of on-board sensors a drone can carry—especially larger drones—is about to explode.

For these reasons, it is drone service companies that will likely have more impact on the direction of drones in agriculture rather than any single drone manufacturer. Get ready to book your season tickets because these companies will be coming to play ball.