Using drones for agriculture is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they are sometimes called, are rapidly becoming a core tool in a farmer’s precision equipment mix.

Today’s farmers have to deal with increasingly complex concerns. Issues such as water – both quality and quantity, climate change, glyphosate-resistant weeds, soil quality, uncertain commodity prices, and increasing input prices to name a few.

Growers are turning to high-tech tools, often under the banner of precision agriculture, to respond to and mitigate these and other concerns. Precision agriculture divides a field into zones that can be individually managed with a range of GPS-equipped precision machinery. Technology enables farmers to collect, store, combine and analyze the layers of data that drive precision nutrient and irrigation management.

There are a variety of sources a farmer can use to build these data layers. Yield monitors, soil sample results, moisture and nutrient sensors, and weather feeds are all useful data sources. In addition to these historical data sets, new technologies, like drones, can provide a view of the current condition of the in-field crop.

Agricultural drones represent a new way to collect field-level data. The most compelling reason for using drones is that the results are on-demand; whenever and wherever needed, the drone can be easily and quickly deployed. A grower or service provider can have a drone in the back of the truck and get actionable, field-level information the next day or sooner. It’s hard to beat the immediacy and convenience of planning the mission, collecting the data, and getting near real-time results; only drones offer these benefits.

Drones such as Buteo, a Pro Drone Sys product, are affordable, requiring a very modest capital investment when compared to most farm equipment. They can pay for themselves and start saving money within a single growing season. Operation is relatively simple, and getting easier with every new generation of flight hardware. They’re safe and reliable. They are easy to integrate into the regular crop-scouting workflow; while visiting a field to check for pests or other ground issues, the drone can be deployed to collect aerial data. Yet, the real advantages of drones are not about the hardware; the value is in the convenience, quality and utility of the final data product.

Drone-enabled scouting is a convenient way to collect the “what is happening right now” data layer. There are three main elements to using a drone effectively to do this: getting the sensors above the field, the sensors themselves, the data analysis. Finally, there are the regulatory and business aspects to consider.

Today, growers around the world are finding that a drone provides a quick way to identify problems in their fields. A drone can pay for itself in the first half of a season.

Those are compelling benefits for agricultural producers, who must contend with increasing costs, falling commodity prices, and increasing demand for productivity with fewer acres in cultivation.

With no sign of the current pressures on farmers abating, it makes sense to consider seriously any tool that can boost productivity, mitigate input costs and ultimately, improve the bottom line. Drones are still considered a new tool for agriculture, but their demonstrated utility for assessing in-field crop health and their potential for compelling return on investment make them an attractive addition to the precision toolkit.

Whether farmers purchase and fly their own drone or hire a drone service provider to fly for them, drones cost-effectively capture aerial imagery with accuracy and unrivalled immediacy. When the window of opportunity for intervention is small, as it is in farming, ease of use and fast turnaround of data is key. Waiting for manned aircraft or satellites to provide images after a weather event or to monitor stand count is impractical for most; however, these situations are handled with ease by a multi-rotor agricultural drone fitted with cameras modified for farm applications.

Obtaining understandable, actionable data in a timely fashion is essential. Software that can handle a large volume of images quickly and return analytics that both identify issues and make recommendations for intervention and variable rate application can mean lower input costs, a bigger yield, and increased profit.

Agricultural drones are here to stay. Farmers that embrace the technology and integrate it into their precision programs will wonder how they ever got along without it.