February 21st, 2024

Drones in agriculture: The wave of now

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 17, 2023.

Markus Weber, of Landview Drones, discusses how unmanned aerial vehicles are being employed by ag producers for crop surveying, spraying and even seeding, during the APEX Alberta drone conference held Thursday at Medicine Hat College.--News Photo Collin Gallant

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

The long-predicted entry of drone technology in farming, energy and other sectors has already taken hold, according to presenters at an industry development conference Thursday in Medicine Hat.

And they say there is still a lot of runway in developing unmanned aircraft in those and emerging sectors.

“We think the opportunity is out there, and it’s big,” said Roger Haessel, an official with locally based Community Futures Entre-Corp. “It’s up to us to make it happen.”

About 150 people attended the APEX Alberta conference in person, while another 350 registered to view presentations and interact via the internet from other locations in Alberta.

“It’s really a transformative technology that enables us to do things faster, cheaper, more safely and gather information that helps us make better decisions,” said Haessel.

“That’s a huge potential opportunity for the Alberta economy.”

That includes taking greater advantage to link defence contractors with industry development to benefit the region, he told the News. According to Department of National Defence procurement rules, successful bidders must apportion some money apart from the contract, providing a stream of funds for development.

Drone use for sensory, imagery, surveying and inspection is projected to grow to a $28-billion market specifically for agriculture, construction and oil and gas, according to the BVLOS Innovation centre, located in Foremost.

Last-mile delivery of goods could be worth $740 billion in North America, and the combined sector could see 50,000 operators on the continent.

About 500 of those might be in Alberta, and more than 1,000 in Western Canada.

Drone testing began at Foremost facility 15 years ago, but in 2016 earned the ability to work with developers to help them acquire certification from Transport Canada. It graduates prototypes from limited licences to operate vehicles beyond visible line of site. That “BVLOS” certification is critical to long-range applications, with Foremost being just one of two test centres in Canada.

“Drone development is a sort of crawl, walk, run scenario,” said Steve Donovan, operations manager of BVLOS at the Foremost AUS range, which provides third-party certification of data and analysis.

Currently, the range is booked about 100 days per year to companies which are proving their vehicles.

Bookings are growing, said Donovan, and “we see that continuing.”

Uptake is also firmly in place in farm and ranch sectors, and growing according to Markus Weber of Landview Drones.

He said that five years ago survey companies generally balked at they idea of using drones for surveying, but they are now standard equipment.

On farms and ranches, too, producers may have been wary of technology but have been won over by relatively small capital costs, and the promise of greater accuracy leading to increased yields and lower costs on fertilizer and seed.

“We found farmers would buy drones and use them to take pictures,” said Weber, of the Edmonton-based company, who says advances is crop research, mapping and even academic research are now possible and well underway.

“Farmers see it as an implement, and they’re ready to buy,” he said, citing the ability to perform in-season crop surveys and yield estimates, mapping for pesticide and fertilizer application, and even helping producers spot problems with other machinery, all from above.

Developments are now taking place in drones customized to perform spraying and seeding at a tenth the cost of land-based machinery.

“We’ve seen producers plant winter wheat in a standing corn crop,” said Weber.

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