How Aerial Vantage Delivered Massive ROI by Using Drones for Large-Scale Pasture Management

Soaring Beyond the Status Quo: How Aerial Vantage Delivered 30%-50% Return On Investment by Using Drones for Large-Scale Pasture Management

Today, agricultural producers are being asked to produce more with less. “Produce more” comes from the need to address the food demands of a rising population considering rapidly increasing environmental pressures (e.g., weather, pests, disease). “With less” refers to rising input costs, requiring producers to use inputs available (e.g., fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) more efficiently.

Figure 1. Line graph of monthly average fertilizer prices

According to the USDA, fertilizer cost is three times the price compared to 2020 and is now the highest it has been over the last 10 years. Other inputs costs, specifically herbicides, match these trends, resulting in a challenging scenario for producers to run an efficient and profitable operation.

However, with industry challenges come opportunities to leverage technology to become more efficient. One of these technologies is the use of drones to collect high-resolution imagery and transform that imagery into information. Aerial Vantage is forging the path toward sustainable agriculture by flying drones at scale, developing advanced analytics, and providing producers with pertinent information to support surgical input decisions. By applying machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to drone operations, Aerial Vantage offers agriculture organizations the opportunity to significantly cut operational costs for a robust return on investment.

Challenges to Drone Adoption In Agriculture

To date, the adoption of drones in agriculture has lagged compared to other industries because of thin margins and the requirement to fly at a considerable scale to make an impact while being affordable. Other industries have been quicker to adopt drones because of the relatively small operational footprint; however, agriculture can require thousands of acres of coverage – specifically in the case of pasture management. Existing regulations to fly drones’ visual line of sight (VLOS) have been a significant impediment to drone adoption in pasture management due to the excessive time and cost associated with following these regulations for large scale areas of interest.

Pasture management involves growing healthy forage to support livestock productivity and overall pasture efficiency. Weed pressure in the field decreases grazeable acres as these weeds are typically less palatable to the cattle, contain far less nutritional value than forage grasses, and in time, will compete for resources against the desired forage.

Farmers are increasingly adopting herbicides in farm management to combat weeds and protect their crops. However, the overuse of herbicides increases farmers’ operational costs and undermines the ecosystem’s health. Current pasture management operations evaluate small pasture samples to identify weed types and overall weed pressure. The focus is on scouting areas that are practical to get to, as it is not realistic to evaluate the entire pasture. The findings in those focused scouting areas are applied to the whole pasture to make operational decisions about inputs (e.g., fertilizers and herbicides).

As a result, treatment plans are implemented on a large-scale basis resulting in potentially inefficient practices. For example, if a pasture is deemed “heavy weed pressure,” the decision may be made to spray the entire range with herbicides. This potential overuse of inputs results in environmental, sustainability, and overall profitability impacts.

Breaking Down Industry Barriers While Delivering Cost Savings

By focusing on large-scale operations and working closely with industry partners, Aerial Vantage is paving the way toward more efficient agricultural processes. In October 2022, Aerial Vantage received a Beyond Visual Line of Sight Waiver to fly beyond 0.6 miles without a visual observer up to 1,000 feet. This waiver, the first of its kind in the United States, helped growers realize a practical implementation of the benefits of drone operations for the large-scale scenarios you find in agriculture: pasture management, plant health, and more.

Under the waiver, Aerial Vantage flew thousands of acres for one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States. With this project, Aerial Vantage demonstrated how an organization utilizing drones equipped with the right sensor, a BVLOS waiver, and complex algorithms could significantly benefit the agriculture industry to support a more sustainable and profitable future.

The program aimed to identify weed pressure for the pastures flown. Aerial Vantage created machine learning algorithms to automatically identify weeds from high-resolution imagery. Aerial Vantage then used the algorithms to assess weed pressure for fields across the ranch, providing locations, sizes, and percent coverage of each weed of interest. With the waiver, Aerial Vantage’s flight operations saw a 10X increase in efficiency, resulting in a significant decrease in the time and cost of operations for the cattle ranch, an initial impediment to their drone operations for agriculture.

The weed location and pressure information will determine herbicide input decisions. For the customer, this means that pastures can be treated in a site-specific manner that addresses only the needed areas versus applications made to an entire parcel of land. With herbicide costs ranging from $30/acre to $60/acre, Aerial Vantage estimates a potential cost savings of 30%-50%.   

Is your organization ready to make your agricultural processes more efficient with drone operations? Aerial Vantage has the capabilities required to make your next mission a success. Contact us today to get started.

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