The lowdown on drones

If you don’t carefully consider the costs and benefits, 
a drone can easily become just an ‘expensive toy’

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AARD – Drones have been used by the military and by hobbyists for years, but now unmanned aerial vehicles designed to do a range of everyday jobs are finding a place in agriculture.

“Drones can be used for such applications as crop scouting, livestock surveillance in remote areas, detection of algae blooms — you name it,” said Nevin Rosaasen, a research economist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

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“There’s even talk of it being integrated into precision agriculture and, in the future, for fertilizer delivery and spraying.”

Producers looking at using drones have a lot to consider.

“When it comes down to it, you are ultimately going to get what you paid for,” said Rosaasen. “An entry-level drone with one or two cameras might cost around $350 to $400, while one with higher-level-resolution cameras, with filters such as UV for crop health information, range from $3,500 to $4,000. Top-end drones are in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.”

There are other costs beyond the purchase price.

“These include the time it takes to learn to operate the drone, which may be better spent in other areas of the operation. It’s best to use a partial budget when considering any new technology. You need to consider the costs of the investment, repairs, extra labour, management time and time spent interpreting the data.”

The biggest consideration is how the information from a drone will be used.

“For instance, certain producers have said a bird’s eye view is worth $1,000 a minute,” he said. “It’s a big advantage to be able to get an overall survey of your field rather than just walking blindly into it hoping to find problems. Some of the aerial views and cameras can really help producers save time and deploy their resources effectively. It really comes down to the cost versus the benefit.

“It’s important to set realistic goals for capturing the potential benefits of the images, maps or information gained using drone technology and that additional information being applied to make a more informed production decision. When the benefits outweigh the costs, you have now turned an expensive toy into a valuable business decision-making tool.”

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