Is the Drone Age Finally Upon Us?

I’ve recently returned from the 3rd annual Tech Hub Live Conference & Expo, held in Des Moines, IA. Per usual, this event was a great showcase for those interested in agricultural technology innovations and the trends expected to drive this marketplace forward over the upcoming growing season and beyond.

Naturally, there was lots of conversation at the show regarding some of the newest ag technologies beginning to appear across the industry. This included autonomous vehicle development and the debut of artificial intelligence (AI) into field equipment operations. However, if I had to pick one technology that seemed to create the greatest amount of buzz at Tech Hub Live 2023, it would be drones.


And many of us who have followed this particular technology segment would probably utter the same four words concerning this development: It’s about (expletive deleted) time!

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Agricultural drones have been a “thing” for many years now. Yet, the adoption rate for drones in agriculture has remained largely unrealized. During multiple summer equipment shows during the late 2010s, drone manufacturers were common exhibitors. For most companies, however, repeat performances at the following year’s show were the exception rather than the rule.

As for why drones weren’t catching on with ag retailers and their grower-customers, some potential users blamed small payload capacities or insufficient battery life for the hold up. Others pointed the finger at incomplete Federal Aviation Administration regulations as the culprit. In any case, adoption rates for drones remained in the single digits throughout at least 2020.

But the fortunes for drones have started to change, apparently. In fact, according to Bruce Erickson, Agronomy Education Distance and Outreach Director at Purdue University, the use of drones/UAVs for application work has increased among ag retailers from 14% in 2021 to 32% today based upon the findings of the 2023 CropLife/Purdue Precision Ag Adoption Survey. “And the anticipation, according to the dealers surveyed, is that percentage will reach 54% over the next two years,” says Erickson.

And for the ag retailers at Tech Hub Live 2023, this adoption rate improvement for drones isn’t exactly news. During the show, several CropLife 100 members discussed with listening audiences their first-hand experiences with drones. This included Frenchman Valley Coop and Frontier Cooperative. Many more also brought up drones use for application or scouting in their discussions as well.

“Sometimes, we have a limited number of ground rigs, so there’s an opportunity for us to instead take a drone into that field,” observed Ryan Meister, VP of Digital Transformation at Frontier Cooperative.

So, maybe, the promise that drones hinted at when they first appeared on the ag technology scene is finally coming to pass!