Unmanned Aerial Systems — UAS or drones, for convenience’s sake — are making their way into farming and leaving in their wake a vast gamut of benefits waiting to be reaped. UAS technology is getting cheaper and regulations are finally catching up, allowing the market to develop at a far faster pace. Deployed correctly, these machines elevate precision agriculture to a new level, making it easier for farmers to manage their properties. To be sure, agricultural drones may have as much impact as tractors did in decades past.

At present, the drones used for farming are analogous to medical x-ray machines. They identify problems, size them up and determine their location. Thus, in possession of more accurate diagnoses, farmers and agronomists can choose the right solution for their crops, increasing yields through efficiency while minimizing costs and environmental impact.

Versatility is a hallmark of UAS, given that they can be used in every stage of agricultural production. Drones can substitute for old and time-consuming methods of crop scouting, for instance. While the alternative on the ground is walking or driving around a property until stumbling across a problem, specialized UAS technology can survey fields from above to detect and diagnose crop stresses in far less time. In addition, these aircraft are usually linked to software that allows for better management of the data they collect, making it far easier for farmers to keep abreast of their business.

Agricultural drones can indeed be deployed in activities spanning from automated crop spraying to measuring water stress levels and verifying storm damage. They can even diagnose problems that escape the human eye, as multispectral sensors that are often contained on these aircraft allow farmers to look out for excessive moisture or sunlight exposure. Plus, their use isn’t just limited to the vegetable kingdom — UAS can be used to deal with livestock in applications as diverse as estimating herd sizes, searching for lost animals, and even tracking the spread of disease.

But what do these machines cost? Not quite as much as one might imagine. The expense of employing such aircraft is contingent on the type of technology embedded in the drone, with prices for complete, ready-to-fly agricultural drone systems ranging from $1,500 for entry-level products like Crop Copter’s Agrivision, to well over $25,000. But the return on investment can be relatively quick. One manufacturer claims that its drones can pay for themselves within one crop season or less. UAS are also a relatively cheap alternative, if compared to the cost and resolution of a satellite image or the rental cost of a plane or helicopter.

Agricultural drones may have as much impact as tractors did in decades gone past.

Farmers can choose to own a drone or rent one, and cost socialization is rife. Farming cooperatives, for instance, can make collective contracts with service providers. What is more, the release of the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 rules was another shot in the arm for the nascent agricultural drone market, making it possible for American farmers to run one of these machines without having to apply for the same kind of permit as an airplane pilot.

The market size of the UAS sector will soon be impressive, to say the least. According to a report by market research firm Zion, the global agriculture drone market was valued at around $673 million in 2015 and is expected to reach approximately $2.97 billion by 2021, growing at a compound annual rate of slightly above 28 percent between 2016 and 2021. Farms will eventually account for an 80 percent share of the commercial drone market globally, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Some of the key players in the agriculture drone market include GoPro, Google, Boeing, and DJI. However, there’s plenty of turf for small and innovative companies to muscle in on. For instance, Land O’Lakes, a Minnesota-based farming co-op, is currently running a crowdsourcing competition to challenge the tech industry to come up with new ways that drones can be used to benefit agriculture. Such undertakings pose a great opportunity for new players.

The secret is largely out: the benefits of UAS usage are vast and the costs are low enough to allow it to spread. More than just providing novel wedding pictures and delivering Amazon bargains to our doorsteps, the use of drones in farming can ensure that crop yields grow ever higher. While some may feel that they are still unnecessary, everyone benefits from precision agriculture, especially as the agricultural sector becomes increasingly capital-driven rather than labor-intensive. In a world whose population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the drone revolution couldn’t come soon enough.

About the author

KEVIN AMIREHSANI is the former managing editor of the Raddington Report. His analysis has been featured on France24, Deutsche Welle, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Ozy, Public Agenda, and various other publications.