Friday, September 20, 2013

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Managing The UAV Madness: 5 Keys To Success

Idaho grower and precision practitioner Robert Blair is bullish on the future of unmanned aerial vehicles, but manufacturers and investors need to proceed with caution and work closely with farmers to ensure their successful integration into the crop production process.

Agriculture has a bright future and the word is out. In July, I had the privilege of speaking at the InfoAg Conference about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs.

Seven years ago, I was just learning about UAVs and their potential and the concept was in its infancy. So I was amazed at how many people packed the room for this year’s breakout session and UAV panel. There was seating for over 300 people, and every one was filled. Not only that, but there were people two- and three-deep in standing in back and along the side of the room.

But why do I think agriculture and UAVs have a bright future? Because of the people in attendance. There were people there outside of agriculture looking at our industry — people from the Department of Defense, the Air Force, global consulting companies and Microsoft, to name a few. In addition, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) had a booth. Agriculture looks real sexy to those outside of our immediate circle.
Attracting A Business Crowd
With this type of success and exposure to our industry come people who are used to the business world, with professional ranks, college degrees and corporate affiliations that make people do a double take. This is great for agriculture because outside money is looking to invest. However, agriculture has seen a similar scenario before and not too many years ago.

When starting in precision ag and UAVs I had to learn the hard way. I didn’t have a good support system for the precision ag equipment, and being the first in anything brings one heck of a learning curve. During my travels as an Eisenhower Fellow, my study topic was precision agriculture, remote sensing and UAVs, and involved world travel. Speaking at different venues around the U.S. and the world has provided me some tremendous insight into what is taking place and needs to happen in order for UAVs to be successful in ag.

Here are my top five bits of advice for folks looking to stake a UAV claim:
1. Proceed with caution. I will start with a word of caution to those outside of ag that believe there is money to be made. There is, but not at the expense of the customer. I saw that path in the early stages of UAVs and broke away from the company I was trying to work with because money is not everything. In ag, it’s about building a relationship.

Look at the word — Agri-Culture. It is a culture. It is a way of life for most people involved, especially the farmer. When it comes to UAVs, at this point in time you are being “invited into their home for a visit,” so to speak. How you handle it from here is up to you.

It was great to see six different UAV vendors with booths at InfoAg, and the interest farmers had in those products. However, when talking with most of the vendors and looking at the products, I fear they will frustrate the end-user during this crucial “courting” stage, potentially giving UAVs a bad name.

There’s a corollary to the earlier stages of precision ag — some salespeople sold products to generate cash flow without looking at it as a relationship. This is one of the reasons precision ag didn’t take off like it should have.
UAVs have gained momentum in the last couple of years in the U.S. and globally. The products, knowledge of the salespeople and product support has also increased. There is a direct correlation between the approach taken by the company selling something and the trust a farmer has at all of the levels.

There is a saying in ag: “In order to work cows quickly, you must go slow.” In other words, UAV companies: Please do your homework and treat farmers like friends, not customers.

2. Partner with agriculture. In order for UAVs to be successful, a UAV company needs to partner with a person or company with in-depth knowledge of on-the-ground ag and UAVs. As I stated before, agriculture is a unique business sector with many different facets. What might work on one crop, segment, or area might not work in another. This partnership can save many hours, days and years of research.

3. Use the farmer’s knowledge. Some of the most intelligent and savvy business people on the planet are farmers. When you look at how a farmer is able to make a profit when they pay the freight for both their inputs and their outputs, the business acumen they have to possess is amazing.

To go along with that, most have been farming the same pieces of land for 20, 40 or more years. That is too much knowledge to just disregard. They have a tremendous understanding and feel for their crops, land, nutrient management, pest management, etc. that can be used to make UAVs become successful.

Just because you built it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will come. During my UAV journey, I clearly saw the potential uses and information that they could provide. I would get excited and the wheels would start turning until I was asked to “quantify” my thoughts. Most farmers, including myself, are not geared that way. If there is a problem, we find the solution, and then do it.

4. Create products farmers want, not what you think they need. While this seems very simple and is broken all the time in the business world, agriculture is different. You have already piqued a farmer’s interest by having a UAV. Now you need to create the products that they need, from airframes to autopilots, to software and everything in between. Listen to the farmer. While there will be many different opinions, after a bit you will find out what they want.

Use that knowledge to create the best products that will withstand abuse and that farmers will share with their neighbors. It’s all about word of mouth. If a neighbor is doing it and being successful (the early adapter) then others will follow.

Price will also be a factor in your product. If a farmer has $30,000, he knows what a tractor, combine or sprayer will do. This newfangled toy is a novelty. You have to show him how it can benefit his pocketbook, not just yours.

5. Use the power and voice of farmers to create pressure for FAA rules that are timely and make sense.This is the biggest roadblock keeping UAVs out of ag. Until this gets resolved, the fledgling commercial UAV industry is going nowhere.

The potential benefits this new technology brings to not only agriculture but society is tremendous. However, without ag at the table stating what they need and want as far as regulations, it will still flounder.
Agriculture has a great seasoned voice in the halls of Congress and Legislatures. Use that voice and listen to their concerns for privacy while they have a need for information on their farm. It can be a difficult balancing act, but it can be done.

AUVSI needs to team with American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, and the list goes on.

When we look at the economic impact agriculture has on most states, it has been the difference between cutting programs and/or raising taxes. Ag still has a strong voice, but if the UAV industry were to team with them now, many different sectors and votes are represented.

These are some exciting times in ag and I am happy to be in the middle of it. I believe that the potential UAVs have in agriculture is off the charts. We are in the information age and the better and timelier information a farmer has, the better the decisions are that he makes.

While there are more technical things that I could make a UAV list on, I believe at this stage in the game we need to create the industry first.
Blair is a wheat grower based in Kendrick, ID.

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