How to Choose the Right UAV for your Farm

Posted in: Technology     

Welcome to the AgAdvance Journal’s inaugural farm technology column! 

It’s long overdue. Tech is transforming this industry and farmers are doing a stand-up job of not just keeping up, but adapting their strategies — on a daily basis. Technology is a pretty general term in agriculture, but for me I think of gizmos, gadgets, computer screens, maps, flying objects, circuit boards, and the types of technology we plug, play, send, receive, toss and track. 

I grew up on a grain farm in east central Alberta and graduated with a degree in agriculture, majoring in crop science. I immediately started working in the area of farm technology and for the last eight years, have worked as a precision ag consultant for North America’s largest agricultural consulting firm, Agri-Trend. 

My job in this column will be to provide you with some ‘pay close attention’ technology highlights as you navigate this fascinating terrain with me. I will pinpoint emerging trends, unpack some of the complex ‘spin’ surrounding new farm tech innovations and give you a sneak peek at viable innovations coming down the pipeline. You won’t want to miss it.

In this issue, we’re going to focus on the excitement that’s been building around UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). According to a 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, precision agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the potential commercial market for unmanned aerial systems. This market is predicted to hit US$3 billion in the next three years, cresting to U$30 billion in the coming decade, said the report.

Those are impressive numbers, and I believe them. I get inquiries weekly from different UAV technologies emerging around the world and as I have said in some recent talks “the last thing I need is more NDVI images of a farmer’s fields”. So what stands out to me when I get a new UAV system coming across my desk? What do I look for? 

1. Multiple Sensor Options: If there’s only a single sensor option, one camera choice, I know my ability to get more than just more field pictures is limited. Give me a thermal option, maybe slap on a spore sensor, then some hyperspectral stuff. More sensor choices on a single UAV platform creates exponential end product opportunities. I’ll save the GoPros for the underwater divers!

2. Seamless Data Transfer: I don’t want a bunch of 100GB memory sticks either. I’m looking for seamless data transfer, software that doesn’t break the bank, so when my UAV lands I can get my product back quickly and affordably. The concept here is ‘unmanned’, right? I’m not interested in spending more manpower than I have to. 

3.Products, not Pictures: When I find that a UAV company is focused on the products it can produce, they stand out to me. My mind goes to things like winter wheat survival reports, weed resistant maps, soil moisture monitoring, crop height analysis for PGR applications. These are just a few. More sensors = more product options. Products will translate into profits. 

I look forward to sharing the results of this advice going forward. Late last year, Agri-Trend partnered with PrecisionHawk to launch the Agri-Trend SkyScout™ program, and soon we will have some fresh research that will help us determine how UAVs can impact what’s happening on the ground and in the soil. 

In 2015, we will be offering UAV services through certified, trained individuals. The program focusses on training, certification, standardized reporting, scalable operations, data integration and, most importantly, the bottom-line value to farmers.

So stay tuned! And if you have ideas of topics for future columns, please drop me a line.


Warren Bills is the vice president of Agri-Trend Geo Solutions and can be reached at 

About the Author
Warren Bills

Warren grew up on a grain farm near Marwayne, Alberta and as the first Geo-Coach® in the Agri-Trend Network Warren has pursued his ambition to help farmers be better at precision farming.  Being passionate and interested in the technologies and working with a powerful Network of Agri-Coaches, the variable rate management programs at Agri-Trend that have resulted are proving to be profitable and scientifically sound.  Today Warren leads the Network of Geo-Coaches for Agri-Trend as VP Geo Solutions.  A graduate from the U of A in Crop science, he is also a P.Ag with the Alberta Institute of Agrologists.  Warren, his wife, Rebecca, and their twin girls currently live in Langdon, AB. 

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