There’s no question that ag’s interest in drones is growing dramatically. Spray drones in particular can solve a variety of problems while offering a number of time-saving benefits. Among the exhibitors at the 2023 Farm Progress Show were 6 spray drone distributors. But, drones are only now starting to find their way into ag equipment dealership showrooms.
For Birkey’s Farm Store, a 19-location Case IH dealership group based in Champaign, Ill., a drone distributor came knocking, and they answered.
“We were contacted by our drone distributor, Bestway Ag, and they were looking for a company in our area of northern and central Illinois,” says John Boelens, precision ag specialist for Birkey’s Farm Store. “They asked us if we were interested in becoming a drone dealer. Drones are becoming more of an interest among the farmers and custom applicators.”
Nick Rust, precision ag coordinator for 21-store Case IH and New Holland dealership group H&R Agri-Power based in Hopkinsville, Ky., says H&R has been selling DJI drones since the beginning of 2023, which is when he thinks interest in drones in his area began to explode.
- Regulations on ag spray drones are complex and have the potential to continue to change. Study up and connect with a lawyer you’re able to recommend to customers.
- Have one designated “drone expert” at your company to head up the sales process. Customers will need plenty of education and guidance.
- FAA regulations can be complicated. Start pushing drones in the fall/winter so if a farmer wants to buy one, they have a few months to get certified before spring use.
“We vetted out some things, looked at some data, and from the spraying standpoint, DJI’s Agras T30 seemed to perform as well as helicopters and planes are as far as getting coverage of fungicide on corn,” Rust says. A conversation with a customer who had been flying Agras T30s for 2 years helped convince him to take on the line.
The list of spray drone manufacturers that dealers can carry are few at this time. Furthermore, they tend to be primarily based outside North America.
CNBC reports that Shenzhen, China-based DJI currently dominates the drone market with 70% share of all drones, not just agricultural spray drones. Another major Chinese spray drone manufacturer is XAG, based in Guangzhou, China. While 2 distributors in the U.S. carry the brand, Farm Equipment was unable to locate any ag equipment dealerships currently selling the product in North America. The third spray drone with a notable presence in the ag market is Hylio, based in Richmond, Texas.
Arthur Erickson, CEO of Hylio, says the market for drones in the immediate future is only going to grow.
“For the next 18 months to 3 years, we’re going to see mass market adoption,” he says. “The tech doesn’t need to get somewhere — there’s not some hurdle it needs to jump. It’s already jumped that hurdle. Now everybody is going to want a drone because they’re going to see their neighbor using one effectively.”
Rust says while his initial foray into drones in 2014 ended up being a disappointment, largely because they only took pictures, his experience selling DJI spray drones has exceeded his expectations, at least in terms of volume.
Ryan Syster, a custom applicator with Veteran Drone Services, demonstrates the DJI T40 for 2 growers at a drone event put on by Case IH dealer Birkey’s Farm Store in Henry, Ill. Photo by: Jeff Lazewski
“The distributor asked, ‘How many are you going to sell?’ And I said, ‘Are you going to be happy if we sell a dozen?’” At the time he took on the line, Rust had 12 precision specialists. He figured each of them could sell 1 drone, after which he’d reevaluate.
Rust and his team received their first drone in April 2023. As of October 2023, he says they have sold and field-started 48 drones.
Boelens says while Birkey’s has just taken on DJI drones and only finished attending sales training at Bestway Ag in August, he’s already seen interest from local co-ops who are currently using drones to seed cover crops.
“I've also had interest from some smaller farmers with less ground,” he says. “Maybe they can’t justify a large self-propelled sprayer or they have a pull-type and they’re limited on how many passes they can go through the field before you run out of ground clearance of the crop.”
Caio Phillipi, precision farming specialist for Case IH dealer Range (formerly Lemann’s Farm Supply) in Donaldson, La., whose dealership is currently one of 2 in the U.S. that sells Hylio, says the market was initially very hot. Many of his customers were curious about spray drones, particularly during last year’s very wet growing season. He says currently the dealership sells approximately 2 drones per month.
“We definitely sold a lot of them,” he says. “Probably more than what we were expecting to in the beginning. But it’s funny because last year was the wettest year in a couple years, and this year was the driest. In the beginning of the year, before the season, all the farmers wanted the drone just in case this year was going to be wet again.”
While farmers of all stripes are expressing an interest in drone technology, the sweet spot for operating them on the farm appears to be the younger generation.
“There are some customers I probably wouldn’t take it to because they don’t have the patience to learn how to fly it,” Rust says. “But any of these farms that have the millennial younger generation on the farm, a lot of them compare it to a video game.”
Kurt Lancaster, co-owner of L. Hust Farms in Slaughter, Ky., has been flying drones at his farm for about a decade and spraying with them for the past 3 years. He says while he used to believe that anyone who could operate an iPad could fly a drone, he’s come to realize that's not the case.
Who are the ‘Big 3’ of Ag Spray Drones?
DJI T40 Photo by: Jeff Lazewski
- Weight: 110 pounds (with battery)
- Spray tank capacity: 40 liters (10.5 gallons)
- Spreading tank volume: 70 liters (18.5 gallons)/115 pounds granular material
- Battery charge time: 9-12 minutes
- Fly time: 6-9 minutes
- Acres capable of spraying per hour: 52.6
- Starting price: Around $25,000
XAG P100 Pro Photo by: XAG
- Weight: 101 pounds (with battery)
- Spray tank capacity: 50 liters (13.2 gallons)
- Spreading tank volume: 80 liters (21.1 gallons)
- Battery charge time: 11 minutes (in water cooling tank)
- Fly time: 7 minute hovering duration (with payload
- Acres capable of spraying per hour: 47
- Starting price: Around $17,000
Hylio AG-272 Photo by: Hylio
- Weight: 117 pounds (without batteries)
- Spray tank capacity: 18 gallons
- Spreading tank volume: 18 gallons
- Battery charge time: 30 minutes (for a pair of batteries
- Fly time: 10-15 minutes (with a full payload and executing a standard treatment mission)
- Acres capable of spraying per hour: 50
- Starting price: Around $85,000
“The dealership needs to fully understand how to spray and how to operate the equipment,” he says. “When you’re buying a tractor, your salesman doesn’t fully understand everything about operating a tractor, and we get by just fine because farmers are so adapted to tractors. Nobody has adapted to the level that these drones have gotten to so quickly. Having an experienced operator selling you the drone is key, so when he looks at the exact application you’re wanting to do with the drone, he can say, ‘This is for you.’”
Because some customers may purchase drones for use outside of the farm, it’s important for dealers to know exactly how they intend to be used.
“We recently had our first sale to someone who is not a farmer,” Phillipi says. “It was a pipeline company. I think they’re going to use it for spraying the trees. They make their path to work the pipeline, and I think they thought it was going to be efficient to use the drone to spray the weeds on the way of the pipeline.”
Knowing how the drones will be used is particularly important if the customer will be doing any work for the U.S. government.
“The government doesn’t allow you to utilize foreign-made drones for government work,” Erickson says. “If you’re spraying land that is government-owned or if you’re doing right-of-way work on government property, you can’t do that with Chinese-made drones.”
Boelens adds that it’s not only the younger generation who are interested in drones. “I have had some farmers show some interest who are in their 40s and 50s who are willing to give it a go because they see the possible value of that drone rather than paying a custom application drone company.”
Hayden Harshbarger, a precision farming/drone specialist at Birkey’s, says convincing the older generation means showing them how the drone is used so they aren’t intimidated.
“99% of the time, if you tell a 60-year-old farmer, ‘Go map this field,’ he’s going to say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” Harshbarger says. “But I can prove how easy it is. You turn this controller on, you hit this button, and then you draw this square around this field. Here’s where the drone’s going to go. Put in your rate, and you hit start. When they see in person how easy that is, that’s really a turning point.”
Harshbarger says the dealership does see interest from customers looking to make a business out of custom application with drones. They have also sold drones to a co-op.
“We have guys who want to make a spray business out of it and buy multiple drone trailers,” he says. “They buy 30 drones and they have teams go out and just do spraying with drones as a business.
Boelens says when he first starts talking with customers about drones, he stays away from the price.
“Teach them what the value of the drone is before they find out the purchase price on it,” he says. “Get them to understand what that drone can do before — I don’t want to say sticker shock, but they’re not cheap. Ask them, ‘What type of spraying do you do now? Do you custom hire it? Did it get done when you wanted it to? Did they do a good job?’”
It’s important to also talk to your customer about their terrain. For example, Boelens mentions that in northern Illinois there is “some nice rolling country and some of it you can’t drive a tractor on,” in which case a drone might be useful.
Ground conditions are another important topic. Spraying when the ground is too wet for a ground rig is one specific benefit spray drones can bring to growers. Phillipi says last year’s wet conditions made it difficult for sugacarne farmers in his area to spray herbicides with ground equipment and drove interest in drones.
Understanding the customer’s crop type should be part of the conversation, as well, as a drone may be able to offer distinct advantages.
“Down in Kentucky where we took our training, tobacco is a high crop,” Boelens says. “It’s heavily produced down there, and it is a very fragile plant. It is not lenient at all, and that’s why it’s still all manually harvested. And it’s on very small fields and gets sprayed weekly. Drones are a way to apply pesticide or fungicide onto that crop and not be running it over.”
Rust says drones have the ability to spray tall crops more cost-effectively, which would otherwise require investing in a costly high-clearance machine.
“The invoice price of a Miller Nitro is running close to $1 million for a new one,” Rust says. “You don’t need the high-clearance machine for all your other applications. You can buy a little cheaper model sprayer to do 90% of your spraying, and then for 10% of it, you need this high-clearance million-dollar machine that’s also costing you more per acre to run any low-clearance applications.
“A lot of guys don’t own high-clearance machines unless they just have been sold on the 1,520-gallon-per-acre rate fungicides, and they have enough acres to justify having that machine. This drone is fitting for that small- to mid-level-size guy who can’t justify the expense of that high-clearance machine. We’re selling our drone packages for $36,000.”
Rust adds that the drones are also useful for smaller fields for which a ground sprayer can be cost-prohibitive. A drone can effectively cover 200-300 acres per day at a 2-gallon rate, he says. This is particularly useful in markets like those in Kentucky, in which the field sizes are generally smaller.
Boelens agrees, saying that during his recent training on DJI drones, he was told that an Agras T-40 drone can, on average, spray around 300 acres per day.
“If you want to start earlier in the morning and work later at night, you can get more than that with 1 drone or if you have a 2-drone system, you can do better on that,” he says. “You may not get 600 acres in a day with 2 drones, but you might get close to that.”
Drone distributor Bestway Ag gives all its dealers a pamphlet template that breaks down the different DJI drone models. Dealers like Birkey’s are then able to add their logo to the top of the pamphlet and use it as a sales tool.
Explaining the ROI
When it comes to defining a customer's return on their drone investment, Rust says for many customers, ROI comes down to the money saved by not having to outsource a custom aerial spray application.
“You take a 3,000-acre farmer that has 1,500 acres of corn, and they’re going to pay a helicopter $18 an acre to come in there and spray,” Rust says. “That's $27,000 in application fees. I can sell them a drone for $36,000, and they’re probably going to get a little better coverage.”
He adds that the timeliness of drones — giving growers the flexibility to spray when the time is right for them and their crops vs. when a helicopter or plane is available — is another way to measure ROI.
“That’s what my farmers have been sold on,” he says. “I can hit my different varieties at the right time, maximize the money I’m spending and do it myself.”
Boelens says drones also seem to apply chemicals more accurately.
“They like the drones because they have a more precise application on the crops,” he says. “The airplane doesn’t really move the leaves a whole lot when you spray, where a drone actually wiggles the leaves back and forth a little bit. So you’re actually getting application under the leaf and over the leaf as the leaf is moving from the air movement of the drone.”
Getting Into Numbers
Bestway Ag puts all its dealers through an 8-hour “crash course” once they sign on to carry DJI drones, which includes topics like controller functions, anatomy of the drone and autonomous flight vs. manual flight. Phillip Morgan, territory manager for DJI distributor Bestway Ag, says dealers will see around 15% average wholegoods margin on drone sales. The DJI T40 retails for around $25,000 and can run up to $35,000 when farmers also purchase batteries, cables, a controller and a generator. Morgan says new dealers will usually start by ordering 2-3 demo units from Bestway with a 10-drone stock order.
On the aftermarket side, Morgan says no matter how well dealers train their customers, there will always be crashes.
“Most of the time, they’re easy fixes,” he says. “The warranty on the DJI drones is pretty good. For your normal wear and tear parts like propellers, you’re not going to have a year warranty. But all your more expensive components — your motors, your modules — you’re going to have typically a 12-month warranty on it. DJI can see exactly what happened when the drone was crashed, so if it was an autonomous flight, they’ll typically honor the warranty.”
Helping Growers with ‘Drone Law’
Erickson says many end users — not to mention dealers themselves — are apprehensive about the regulatory aspect of flying drones. Spray drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. and Transport Canada in Canada, as they are considered aircraft. Furthermore, given their payloads, spray drone pilots often require special certifications to fly legally — both because of the nature of the material being sprayed as well as the size of the drones themselves. The FAA requires special certification to fly drones 55 pounds and heavier. For Transport Canada, that weight requirement is about the same: 25 kilograms (55.12 pounds).
To address these concerns, dealers can take a page out of the Hylio playbook and find ways to help their customers overcome regulatory hurdles.
“A lot of what we have to do is just consulting,” Erickson says. “A customer will call us, and they’ll say, ‘I'm already on board with the drone. But can you help me navigate the licenses I need?’”
Erickson adds that the FAA has dramatically improved the process for drone operators to get certified.
“A few years ago, the system was so backed up and so archaic that it could take 12-14 months to get all of your certifications in place. But now the process is much more streamlined. The FAA did a good job of revamping the system so you can get stuff through in a month or 2.”
Rust says H&R Agri-Power is doing what it can to help its customers fly their drones legally.
“For somebody to be legal to fly these drones, they have to jump through a bunch of hoops,” he says. “And part of what we’re doing is hooking our growers up, if they choose to, with a lawyer who’s familiar with getting legal.”
He adds that he hopes the U.S. government will make it easier to get certified. The legal fees to get the paperwork filed with the FAA and affiliated organizations could cost $3,000-$4,000, Rust says.
For Phillipi, one objection he often faces concerns the means of recharging the drones.
“They don’t really like the idea that they have to have at least a 10 kW generator for the 8-gallon machine," he says. “You don’t have to, but if you want to have a constant operation and not wait on batteries to finish charging, we recommend a 10 kW generator.
“It is a little intimidating, especially when we explain to them that the batteries need to cool down before you charge. You can’t go under a certain voltage with the battery. You have to cycle through every 3 months. If you’re not using it within 3 months, you’ve got to store them.”
Once a customer has bought a drone, it’s the dealer’s responsibility to make sure they swim the proper legal channels before they start using it. Harshbarger has a large binder he produces and goes over with the customer to make sure they’re 100% educated on their next steps.
Farmers need to get their “107” and become an FAA-certified drone pilot by passing a knowledge test, which certifies growers for any drone under 55 pounds. From there, growers will need an FFA exemption under Section 44807 in order to operate their ag spray drones, which will weigh over 55 pounds. This process is less clear and usually involves legal help. Additionally, receiving an approval for an exemption can take up to several months.
As a result, Harshbarger considers the fall/winter a good time to get drones in front of customers, as they’re already several months away from when they would start using them in the field.
The third drone-specific certification a grower needs is their FAA Part 137 certification, which allows a user to specifically apply chemicals with their drone. Similarly to a car, growers also need to register their drones with the FAA to receive an “n-number,” the equivalent of a license plate.
After all that, Harshbarger says Birkey’s has customers sign a statement of a notification that indicates the dealership cannot be held liable if the farmer flies the drone illegally or injures someone while flying it.
Before Taking on a Drone Line
Before you place that first order for drones, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
“Have someone specified to do all the drone repairs and stay on top of the service on drones,” says Phillipi. “That’s the main thing for a dealership. It’s not just about selling them — it’s about being there with the customer and servicing the drones, making sure everybody’s flying the right way.”
Rust adds that before embarking on drone sales, make sure you have someone within your dealership group who is excited about drones.
“That’s the only reason it’s working here,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of guys who are excited about it. They’re watching Facebook videos, doing the certifications, learning how to work on them and just going out there and talking about them.”
Morgan recommends dealers have a team of around 8 employees to be “fluent in drone,” meaning they can operate, demo, discuss and sell drones.