Drone Sprayer Economics
There is far more hype to this area that is being driven by possibilities rather than economics.
Drones are mobile platforms to spray from. There are other mobile platforms such as:
- Manned aircraft (airplanes and helicopters)
- Ground spraying rigs (tractor pulled, truck mounted, etc.)
- Humans (Backpack sprayer)
Each of these platforms has pros and cons that need to be weighed against the benefits of the drone.
- Manned Aircraft (Airplanes & Helicopters) vs. Drone Sprayers
Manned Aircraft: Most drone sprayers cannot carry a large payload compared to manned aircraft. Manned aircraft also are lower in cost per acre than drone sprayer operations. For crop spraying, drone sprayers won’t be used for large acres of land because the spraying rate per day is also way too small compared to manned aircraft which can spray thousands of gallons in one day. This is a major point people miss. There are narrow windows of time to spray crops due to all sorts of things such as weather, chemical being sprayed, growth cycle, etc. Simply put, drones cannot spray fast enough because their tanks are small.
Drone Sprayers: Drones have the ability to service clients who have smaller amounts of land or area inaccessible to manned aircraft.
- Ground Spraying Rigs (Tractor Pulled, Truck Mounted, etc.)
Ground Spraying Rigs: They do not have to deal with the FAA and all those hassles. They can also hold much more spraying material than a drone.
Drone Sprayers: Drones can access areas that ground spraying rigs cannot, such as uneven, steep, or inaccessible terrain or sensitive environments where the ground vehicles would damage the area or crops. Drone sprayers are lower in cost to purchase and maintain.
- Humans (Backpack Sprayer)
Backpack Sprayer: Super cheap to purchase ($90) compared to a drone. No FAA problems.
Drone Sprayers: You can access areas with less danger to your employees. (Slip and fall anyone? Hello workers’ compensation claims.) Potentially more time efficient. Less exhausting than walking around with a hand pump sprayer. Depending on batteries and how quickly you can refill, this can be more time efficient than backpack sprayers.
So Where Do Crop Dusting Drones Fit In?
When you go to the home improvement store to buy some paint, you’ll notice that there are small spray paint cans, low cost electric paint sprayers, and large metal heavy duty commercial sprayers. By analogy, drone sprayers fill a sweet spot that is similar to low cost electric paint sprayers.
You have to focus on the strengths of crop dusting drones to see where they shine:
- Able to get into locations that manned aircraft, ground spraying tractors, or hand sprayers cannot access.
- Safer than hand spraying.
- Lower acquisition costs versus larger pieces of equipment (ground spraying tractors) or manned aircraft. Do you really need to buy that ground spraying rig?
- Easy and low cost to transport and deploy. (Ground spraying rigs you have to drive or tow there. Manned aircraft you have to fly to the location).
- Able to service smaller clients that would not have hired a manned aircraft.
Can You Give Me Some Drone Spraying Examples?
- High value crops that tend to cover smaller acres of land (vineyards, apple orchards, almond orchards, etc.).
- Spraying pollen on higher value crops to increase crop yields.
- Crops on terrain that is too inaccessible or inconvenient to get to with a ground sprayer yet is too small to justify hiring a manned aircraft spraying operation.
- Herbicide spraying on rocky embankments near a water reservoir where you don’t want to endanger your employees or you have a hard time getting to the rocky areas with the ground rig.
- Mosquito abatement in areas that ground vehicles (or boats) cannot easily get to and that don’t justify the use of manned aircraft.
- You’re a company that is running an in-house operation testing out aerial application of chemicals or on a particular type of plant.
What About Costs? How Much Does a Spraying Drone Operation Cost?
Yes, those examples didn’t really take into account the total drone sprayer operational costs. Here are some rough numbers you can use to go off of:
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Related:
- FAA Registration ($5 per drone). Good for 3 years.
- FAA Remote Pilot Certificate Knowledge Exam ($150 per remote pilot). Aeronautical test knowledge is good for 24 months.
- Study Material for Remote Pilot Test (Free-$250)
- If you are spraying anything other than just pure water,
- You’ll need a Part 137 Agricultural Aircraft Operator Certificate ($0 per operator but will take time). Indefinite.
- Exemption ($0 per operator but will take time and legal knowledge.) Lasts 2 years.
- Need to spray at night? Part 107 night waiver. ($0) Lasts 4 years.
- Drone Sprayer Insurance. I can’t estimate this because there are many factors here.
- Crop Dusting Drone Sprayer & Equipment. (13,000-40,000)
- Spraying Pesticide? You’ll need a state restricted use pesticide license. (Around $100 to $250). Things can cause this to fluctuate so you’ll have to check your state.)
If you need my help with exemptions, a Part 107 night waiver, going through the 137 agricultural aircraft operator certification,
Now before you start making business plans. You need to know that these drones are considered aircraft. Aircraft are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). In addition to the FAA, other U.S. Federal laws may apply to your operation.