drones in agriculture DII 2024

Drones in agriculture: is it a fruitful technology for the drone industry?

In 2024, agriculture is not just about the ground. Thanks to the proliferation of drones in agriculture, the skies are a critical space in agriculture too.

In fact, agriculture is considered one of the top three sectors for the drone industry. According to the 2022 Drone Application Report from German analytics company Drone Industry Insights (DII), the top 3 industries using drones are:

  1. Energy (14% of all drone applications)
  2. Construction (12% of all drone applications)
  3. Agriculture (9% of all drone applications)

Agriculture is a broad industry, making way for all sorts of drone applications. By mounting an NDVI camera to a drone, critical data can be collected. (NDVI is an important graphical indicator for farmers to analyze remote sensing measurements and assess whether the land contains live green vegetation or not.)

Drones can plant seeds. Spraying drones like the DJI Agras T20P can optimize distribution of fertilizer. Farmers in some countries in Africa have even used the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced drone to herd elephants away from their crops, in turn preventing them from trampling on precious farmland.

So what does the future look like for drones in agriculture? Experts say it’s set to grow. And what are the latest developments from the companies that build agricultural drones? Here’s everything you need to know about the state of drones in agriculture in 2024.

The long-term outlook for drones in agriculture

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

The agricultural drone market is worth $3.6 billion in 2024, according to a 2024 analysis from DII. By 2030, it’s predicted to grow to $5.7 billion. Much of that can be attributed to the other sensors that are being mounted on agricultural drones. Rather than just snapping visual images, unique sensors on drones are able to generate not just aerial pictures but also 2D or 3D maps, NDVI maps/mosaics, or IR maps.

It also has to do with increasingly useful government approvals. For example, Canadian-based drone service provider Volatus Aerospace announced in February 2024 that it had received FAA authorization to operate any drone approved for agricultural operations. That includes drones weighing 55 pounds (25kg) or greater — which is a huge step in enabling the company to capitalize on the benefits of precision spraying.

And in March 2024, Hylio, a farming drone company, became the first US-based company to receive FAA approval for swarming UAVs that weigh more than 25 kg. The approval allows Hylio to deploy up to three drones that weigh more than 55 pounds.

Challenges for drones in agriculture

Sure, that’s all a lot of growth and general good news. But by some metrics, the agricultural drone industry hasn’t progressed as fast as some might have suspected.

“This has been partly due to the conservatism of traditional farming practices that have been handed down through generations,” according to DII’s analysis. “It has also been because of regulatory constraints, such as those limiting beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, which have restricted scalability.”

Regulation has been more liberal in countries like China. For example, China’s CAAC has issued airworthiness certificates to DJI’s T16, T20, T10 and T30 agricultural drones. But most other countries aren’t that generous. Proposals to revise regulation across Europe, North America and Brazil are largely still in, well, the proposal stage.

Even though the U.S. has made some regulatory moves (the Volatus and Hylio approvals being two examples), critics say it’s not enough.

Battery life remains another obstacle. While some drones boast extended flight times, they still pale in comparison to traditional tractors or airplanes used for spraying. This limits their effectiveness on vast farms, forcing farmers to juggle multiple charging cycles.

The high cost of these machines is also a significant barrier. Advanced agricultural drones can easily reach the six-figure mark, putting them out of reach for many smaller farms. Without government subsidies or leasing options, widespread adoption remains a challenge.

Uses of drones in agriculture

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

One reason why agriculture is such a big industry for drones is quite simple because there is so much variation in how one might actually use drones in agriculture. And the concept of agriculture itself doesn’t just cover, say, land that grows crops. It’s actually quite varied, with drones flying over growing crops of course, but also grazing spans a range of land types such as grazing land and dense forests. Even bodies of water fit into the cohort.

Beyond the many opportunities to use drones — drones are quite simply so useful. Like pretty much any industry using drones, the agricultural industry benefits from the speed and low cost of drones, as well as the high-quality images they output. The agricultural drone industry takes on the added benefit of being able to operate largely away from people. And with that, there’s no one around to get hurt should the drone crash.

Here are some examples of the latest ways that drones are used in agriculture:

Livestock management: Drones can find and count animals within a defined area, perhaps done even more efficiently via computer vision rather than manually counting. Drones might also identify sick or dead animals so they can be quickly removed from the herd. Beyond supporting animals directly, they might carry out inspections of fences.

Crop farming: In quickly flying over what could be thousands of square miles of farmland, drones can survey soil quality and composition or sensing plant stress and deficits in nutrition. They can detect pests, or spraying pesticides, insecticides or fertilizer.

Fishery maintenance: The use of drones in fishery maintenance is among the newer use cases. Used to help find fish swarms, drones make it easier to find the richest fishing grounds. For fish farms, drones are used in more of an inspection capacity.

The DJI Mavic 3 Thermal can quickly scan for body heat signatures.

Hunting: With an IR camera, drones can easily find animals. Though, note that this use case may be classify as illegal in certain countries.

Forestry: Drones can count trees, monitor the health of forests, including their growth, stress and yield calculation. That information can be used to detect fires or pests.

Major companies that make agricultural drones

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

Agricultural drones often necessitate the ability to fly a long time over long distances. They’re also often best used with advanced sensors. Given that, your standard camera drone likely won’t fly in the agricultural drone industry.

Thus, there’s a pretty unique subset of companies that make drones for agriculture. Here are some of the biggest companies building agricultural drones (and some of their latest developments):

DJI

Photo courtesy of DJI

DJI is the largest drone maker in the world, and it unsurprisingly has a huge presence in the ag space. The Chinese dronemaker launched its own crop spraying drone back in November 2015. By the end of 2022, DJI had sold more than 200,000 agriculture-specific drones to customers across more than 100 countries. DJI’s agricultural products include the Mavic 3 Multispectral drone, as well as software products including DJI Terra and DJI SmartFarm App. 

Among DJI’s most prominent agricultural drones is the DJI Agras T20P, which in May 2023 became finally available outside of Asia. Exact prices vary depending on dealer (as each dealer includes their own level of service, extra parts, etc) but it tends to cost about $20,000. Positioned as a versatile and value-minded agricultural drone, the DJI Agras T20P drone supports multiple types of agricultural operations including surveying, mapping, spraying and spreading. 

Hylio

Created by a group of students at the University of Texas at Austin in early 2015, Hylio builds drones that still today are engineered in the U.S. The company is known for building agricultural powerhouses. Heavy-duty drones like Hylio’s AG-272 boast 18-gallon capacities and can cover 50 acres per hour, significantly boosting spraying efficiency.

Among Hylio’s biggest achievements is becoming the first company to obtain FAA approval to operate swarming drones that exceed 55 pounds. For Hylio, that unlocks the ability to operate multiple heavy-duty drones simultaneously by a single pilot and without a visual observer — even at night. That just means way more efficiency. A single Hylio AG-230 AgroDrone can cover around 50 acres per hour — but three drones at once means a single operator could potentially triple productivity by managing up to 150 acres per hour.

Sentera

Photo courtesy of Sentera

Based in Minnesota, Sentera builds drone sensor technology. In March 2024, Sentera announced new integrations for the 6X Multispectral Sensor and the ultra-high resolution 65R sensor. And with that, the two sensors are now compatible with the IF800 Tomcat and IF1200 drones. Those drones are made by Inspired Flight Technologies, which is an American drone company based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. They stand out for their long, 54-minute flight time and payload capacity of 1.5 kg (max payload 3 kg).

The two technologies together entail high-resolution global shutter mapping and science-grade multispectral imaging capabilities. Sentera claims that the 65R is the first ultra-high-resolution aerial RGB sensor in its class to deliver seamless drone integration without compromising image quality.

XAG

XAG’s partner Pegasus Robotics demonstrating XAG P100 Pro in the field. Photo courtesy of XAG.

XAG made big waves in February 2024 when it launched its XAG P100 Pro Agricultural Drone. The foldable quadcopter has a 50 kg payload and is designed for spraying, spreading, and field mapping. Among its smart tech includes RTK centimeter-level navigation, automatic obstacle avoidance, rotary atomization spraying, and app route planning. Like DJI, XAG is also based in China. Though, it leans on Missouri-based Pegasus Robotics to serve as its U.S.-based partner.

One Comment

  • Yves Morier says:

    Dear Sally and Team,
    Thank you for this very informative article.
    I just wished to comment that the EU regulations would allow to perform agricultural flight beyond visual line of sight.
    This can be done in the specific category after an authorization from the Competent Authority based on a risk assessment performed by the operator using the SORA methodology (Specific Operations Risk Assessment).
    Also two Pre-Defined Risk Assessment (PDRA) S02 and G03 envisage agricultural operations in BVLOS. PDRAs as their names indicate are risk assessments that have been conducted a priori for certain well defined operations and they should simplify the obtention of an authorisation.
    I am at your disposal for more information.
    All the very best,
    Yves

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