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Drones will transform the way food is grown next year

Miguel Sotomayor | Getty Images
This drone technology company is a game-changer for farming

Drones are transforming agriculture — giving farmers new tools to supervise crops and check on fields from the air — and 2017 will be be a pivotal year for adoption, say industry experts.

Growers will increasingly embrace the technology because of new FAA guidelines clarifying the rules for flying drones, simpler operating systems, and better software to analyze data, said agtech consultant Chad Colby.

"The floodgates have opened," said Colby.

The global market for drone-powered tools may reach $127 billion by 2020, with agriculture accounting for $32.4 billion of that, according to PricewaterhousCoopers.

Source: DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy wants to become the go-to operating system for drones — like Android for smartphones — said Jono Millin, the company's chief of product. The company is betting that the real money will be in delivering drone software and services, rather than manufacturing the drones themselves, he said.

Its software automates drone flight, allowing users to fly drones made by market leader DJI with the tap of a mobile app. The drone flies a path preset by the farmer and captures images of the ground. Users then upload the images to the cloud where DroneDeploy's software creates a map revealing areas of crop distress and variability.

This enables farmers to quickly identify problems and take action fairly inexpensively. Previously, farmers had to rely on expensive small aircraft or satellites for this information, which often take too long to get to be useful.

"You literally push a couple of buttons, the drone flies the field like a lawnmower, collects the data, and processes the data," said Colby. "It's a very valuable tool," he said. DroneDeploy offers both a free service and paid service, which starts at $99 per month.

By making agriculture more data-driven, farms should see greater productivity and yields, according to a study released by PwC in May found. Agricultural consumption, driven by population growth, will increase by 69 percent from 2020 to 2050, and give rise to a more modern approach to growing.

Rain drowned 64 acres on a 200 acre soybean farm last year in the Midwest. With images gathered by a drone, the farmer was able to see this and adjust his marketing strategy, said Colby. In another example, using DroneDeploy's technology, a farmer was able to see that seeds guaranteed by the manufacturer to deliver a seed emergence — meaning that planting led to a crop pushing up through the soil — of 95 percent only delivered 25 percent, said Millin.

"He could get a fantastic refund," he said.

Source: DroneDeploy

Data gathered by DroneDeploy — which is provided by thousands of users in 135 counties, and then anonymized to protect privacy — is doubling every month, said Millin. "We believe we have the largest data set from the largest number of customers in the world," he said.

And it's not just farmers. This month, DroneDeploy launched an app store so developers can build their own apps tailored for the needs of specific industries. Early partners included Box, John Deere, and Autodesk.

Goldman Sachs named DroneDeploy as one of 10 key players in motion control and robotics, a subsection of artificial intelligence, according to a November report.