Archive pour 16 juin, 2016

Drones in Agriculture: Hype or Reality

Unquestionably, #drone is one of the biggest tech buzzwords at the moment. Suffice it to recall recent Y Combinator’s applications “most popular tags” analysis (building IoT-connected AI-powered VR drone?) or 2015 Gartner Hype Cycle, where autonomous vehicles category (one including drones) was placed at so-called “peak of inflated expectations”.

Consequently, agriculture is one of the areas that tech community is bullish the most considering drones usage. In addition, hype is fueled by media with variety of publications claiming how drones will transform the industry and lead humanity to the brave new world.

But is there any hard data supporting this hypothesis?

The first thing to look through in order to get familiar with some industry is market research/forecast. Perhaps many of you are familiar with this pic:

Drones in Agriculture: Hype or Reality dans INNOVATION
Source: AUVSI

According to AUVSI’s “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” report released in early 2013 agriculture UAVs’ applications would dominate the market and “dwarf all others”. This report is quite foundational and has become a proxy for some other market reports. But, actually, the assumtions on which this report was based are at least very questionable if not entirely wrong.

Here is a great read on this topic, in a nutshell:

  • AUVSI report is not an objective piece of research due to this organization’s goal is to “promote unmanned systems
  • Japan is not a good proxy for US due to agriculture landscape is very different, particularly field location, average field size, agriculture products and UAV application (pesticide spraying in Japan and remote sensing in US) itself

However, let’s step aside from research papers towards actual numbers, namely adoption of drones in agriculture.

In 2015 Crop Life Magazine conducted a survey among Ag dealers and producers on how they use precision agriculture technologies. And 2015 survey was the first one that included questions on drones.

Results are pretty eye-opening (here is the full survey):

While 16% of US Ag dealers were offering drone-related services in 2015…

Source: CropLife

Whereas 16% is not so small number actually, you may think, but it really makes sense to compare this number with satellite imagery services, which are used by 51% of dealers (more on this below).

…only 13% of them were generating a profit from it

Source: Own analysis

And this is really important: doing pretty simple math it can be easily calculated (0,16*0,13), that

Just 2% of US Ag dealers are making money on drones

Such demand definitely doesn’t correlate with AUVSI forecast mentioned above.

Thereby, are there any prerequisites that drone services in agriculture would become a sustainable business?

Drones in Ag: Threats and Opportunities

Down below I’d analyze potential threats and opportunities for drone-related businesses in agriculture.


1. Satellite / Aircraft platforms
By virtue of technology breakthroughs (see “Moore’s Law for Space” andCubesats) and massive venture capital investments in space-related startups have made small satellite-based Earth Observation (EO) one of the key threats to drone imagery.

Speaking of satellite/drone imagery adoption rate (perhaps the most important metric for assessing one or another technology’s perspetives), UAVs’ adoption among both Ag dealers and producers is at the level satellite imagery has been 11 years ago.

Source: Own analysis
Source: Own analysis

Then, if we look at the historical perspective, satellite imagery adoption rate among US Ag dealers and producers correlates really well with new satellites’ launches:

Source: Own analysis

Thus, taking into account that a huge number of Earth Observation satellites (both by commerical companies and government/academia) is going to be launched in coming years, satellite imagery price will definately decline and this would significantly reduce the barriers for farmers to use remote sensing data.

Moreover, there is a competition from aircrafts which are sometimes claimedto be an optimal platform for gathering imagery in terms of spatial resolution and data acquisition costs at the moment (nice read on this here). And there are some startups utilizing imagery form manned aircrafts, such as YC-backedTerrAvion, which declares it collected more data than the whole electric drone industry combined in 2015

2. Unclear AgTech mid-term adoption
In addition to questionable perspective of drones in agriculture in competition with other imaging platforms, it is unclear how farmers will adopt tech startups’ products in mid-term.

According to Kenneth S. Zuckerberg, senior research analyst at Rabobank Food & Agriculture, commodity price downturn will have serious impact on AgTech startups adoption.

Source: AgFunderNews

Key takeaway from this study is that farmers would hardly invest their resources to innovations (say provide AgTech startups a revenue) due to significantly declined income.

“Adoption of agtech to drive productivity gains will continue to be delayed and this delay increases the risk of down rounds for startups over the next few years”. — Kenneth S. Zuckerberg, Rabobank Food & Agriculture

In another research paper, made by Jonah Kolb, vice president at farm management group Moore & Warner, and Arne Duss, founder and CEO of HighPath Consulting, even more reasons for limited AgTech adoption are outlined, such as:

  • Falling farm incomes
    USDA forecasted that 2015 farm incomes were down 36% from 2014, making them the lowest farm since 2006.
  • Low incentive
    Many US farms are owned by their operators, meaning there is little need to deliver market-rate returns to investors, making adoption of yield-enhancing tech slow.
  • Risk appetite
    With 62% of US farmers nearing retirement age, there is less appetite for systems upgrades.
  • Growing season
    A single growing season in much of the US reduces adoption opportunities and the number of potential technology iterations each year.

Summing up, there are some unfavorable macro trends for drones in agriculture beyond competition with satellites/aircrafts.

3. BVLOS Restrictions
The abscence of established mechanism for safely managing UAV operations in low-altitude airspace (at or below 500 feet) and, consequently, beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight restrcitions imposes significant limitations on the efficiency of drones implementation in agriculture.

While some farms only consist of several acres and could be fully surveyed within-visual line of sight (VLOS), many more farms do not fit this description. For these larger farms the importance of being able to conduct BVLOS operations is magnified.

If farmers with large acreage are restricted to VLOS requirements then they would need to fly multiple, potentially redundant missions to cover the necessary ground. Instead of capturing the imagery and collecting the relevant data all at once, these farmers would be forced to expend precious additional resources into stitching together maps and synthesizing data. This would be highly inefficient — both in terms of manpower and time — and could nullify the potential time and cost savings provided by UAS for Ag industry.

At the same time, there are some technical (such as lack of access to spectrum and uncertain UAS traffic management (UTM) system architecture) and regulatory barriers that may cause the system to be years away (more on thishere).

Moreover, BVLOS are limited in most of the countries (not only in US):

Source: Precision Hawk

Thus, BVLOS restrictions is one more threat to potential expansion of UAVs in Ag.


Despite the threats described above, there are some positive signals making drones’ perspectives more promising.

1. Drones Are Getting Smarter & Stronger
Generally, drones implementation is limited due to several technological difficulties, such as:

  • Lack of autonomy
    UAVs full potential can be unlocked only when truly autonomous drones would be available.
  • Low flight endurance
    Efficiency of drones operations strongly tied with the flight endurance, which is, for most of the professional UAVs, such as SenseFly eBee and AgEagle, is about 30-40 minutes, which is not enough obviously for continous surveys.

However, a lot of great startups are overcoming these challenges with their products.

Recent computer vision applications improved drone capabilities beyond pretty straightforward “follow-me” features towards impressive autonomy. To name a few startups in this area there are Skydio (raised $28M from Accel and a16z) and Percepto (raised $1M from Mark Cuban and some other high-profile angel investors). Moreover, advanced computer vision is already imbedded in consumer models, such as brand new DJI Phantom 4.

Skydio’s indoor test flights

As for flight endurance improvement, there are 2 options: ground charging stations and advanced (not LiPo) batteries.

Ground stations are developed by a number of startups (Skysense and Hive to name a few) and usually consist of protected case and induction charging pad, thus a drone should just be landed at it.

Skysense drone charging pad in action (@elehcimd)

Regarding batteries, there are several projects developing fuel cells for UAVs, such as hydrogen fuel cell by Intelligent Energy. Moreover, world record for the longest drone flight (more than 3 hours) that was recently set in Russiainvolved hydrogen-air fuel cells.

Hydrogen-powered drone by Intelligent Energy. Source:

Thereby, considering that drones would be capable to fly for hours and do it without humans’ assistantship quite soon, this will significantly increase drones’ operations efficiency.

2. UAVs Sensors’ Advancements
One area in which drones are definitely ahead of satellites at the moment is sensors variability and data resolution. With lidars , hyper-/multispectal imagers and thermal sensors drones are capable to collect unique data compared to satellites. For example, an average hyperspectral image space-based system can provide has 30–50m GSD, which is 2 order of magnitude lower than it’s possible to get using UAV.

But, while these sensors have already proved its value for construction,miningenergy and O&G, it remains unclear which applications (except NDVI calculation utilizing multispectral sensors, which can be successful provided with satellites as well) for agriculture can be useful for farmers (crop counting or weed detection?).

Moreover, recent announcement of a Planetary Recourses Series A round for the development of hyperspectral and thermal imaging satellite constellation and company’s partnership with Bayer signals an increasing competition between drones and satellites in the area of “uncommon sensors” also.

3. Ag Can Adopt New Tech Pretty Fast (if it brings real value)
Despite the data on satellite/drone imagery penetration and unfavorable AgTech mid-term adoption forecast mentioned above, historically, Ag industry have snapped up some technologies pretty fast, such as GPS-related ones.

“GPS guidance with auto control/autosteer” and “GPS-enabled sprayer boom/nozzle control” adoption rate in US was growing with 24% CAGR historically. Source: CropLife Survey

Thus, if we take these technologies as a reference to UAVs and extrapolate adoption growth rate we’d have pretty optimistic scenario with around 60%(taking GPS guidance with auto control/autosteer 30% CAGR as a reference) penetration of drones in US agriculture industry till 2020.


In my opinion, unfavorable conditions prevail over the favorable ones at the moment and global expansion of agriculture drones is questionable (at best).

However, there is probably some niche on the intersection of:

  • Hyperspetral Imagery
    UAV-based hyperspectral imagery is much more affordable than the one from satellite-based sensors at the moment (and in a mid-term too, taking into account Planetary Resources constellation will probably be fully operational at 2019–2020). Thereby, if startups would be able to solve some technology problems related to hyperspetral data (huge data volume, the need for calibration for different geographical areas) and create uses cases providing value to the Ag customers — it’s is one of the things that would give drones an edge compared to other platforms (an interesting company in this area: Gamaya)
  • Relatively small farms
    At the moment, to purchase satellite imagery it is required to buy some minimal order amount of data (e.g. 500 km2 for 5m GSD data from RapidEye constellation), which makes it unreasonable for small farmers. Consequently, small farmers represent a market opportunity in agriculture for drone startups, perhaps Japan and Western Europe, speaking of geography. However, there are some limitations on the area on which drones’ implementation is economically reasonable (here is a research paper on drones, aircrafts and satellite cost effectiveness comparison:
According to a study made by Italian researchers, drones are more cost effective than other platforms only on farmlands less than 15–20 ha, and main costs are georeferencing and image processing ones (another opportunity for startups?). Source: DroneApps

Thus, drone Ag startups probably should try to target a niche market/use case, establish a beach head instead of aiming for global expansion from the beginning and prove they can really bring some value to the farmers (and provide return to its investors consequently).

Des nanoparticules dans nos assiettes



A notre insu, les nanoparticules ont envahi notre environnement quotidien. Présentes dans de multiples produits de consommation courante – crèmes solaires, textiles, articles de sport, carburants, pneus, appareils électroménagers, panneaux solaires, ciments, peintures, vernis, équipements médicaux… –, elles se sont aussi introduites, subrepticement, dans nos assiettes.

Cela, sans que le consommateur en soit averti par un étiquetage spécifique, pourtant requis par la réglementation européenne. Et, surtout, sans qu’il se doute des dangers potentiels de ces substances. C’est ce que révèle une enquête de l’association Agir pour l’environnement, rendue publique mercredi 15 juin.

L’association a fait analyser, par le très officiel Laboratoire national de métrologie et d’essais, rattaché au ministère de l’industrie, quatre produits des plus ordinaires : des biscuits chocolatés de la marque Lu, des chewing-gums Malabar, une conserve de blanquette de veau commercialisée par William-Saurin et un mélange d’épices pour guacamole vendu sous la marque Carrefour.

Résultat des tests : tous contiennent des nanoparticules, de dioxyde de titane (TiO2) pour les trois premiers échantillons, et de dioxyde de silicium (SiO2) pour le quatrième. Des adjuvants utilisés par les industriels pour blanchir les aliments ou modifier la teinte de leurs colorants, dans le cas du premier ingrédient, et pour fixer l’humidité et empêcherl’agglomération des poudres, dans le cas du second.

Aucun étiquetage pour avertir le consommateur

Cette « cuisine nanoparticulaire » n’est pas une pratique neuve. On savait déjà que l’industrie agroalimentaire agrémente certaines de ses recettes d’une pincée de nano-éléments pour en améliorer l’aspect, la saveur, la texture ou la conservation. Mais, dénonce Agir pour l’environnement, l’ajout de ces composants à notre menu pose deux problèmes, l’un réglementaire, l’autre sanitaire.

D’après les investigations menées par l’association dans les rayons des supermarchés français, aucun produit n’est aujourd’hui étiqueté comme contenant des nanoparticules. A fortiori, aucun des quatre soumis à l’analyse.

Or, depuis décembre 2014, la réglementation européenne exige la mention « nano » sur les denrées alimentaires qui en recèlent. Une obligation dont la mise en œuvre a été retardée, mais qui aurait dû entrer en vigueur en décembre 2015, en vertu du règlement sur les « nouveaux aliments ».

Doivent ainsi être signalés à l’acheteur les produits dans lesquels sont incorporés des nanomatériaux « présentant une ou plusieurs dimensions de l’ordre de 100 nanomètres[milliardièmes de mètres] ou moins », mais aussi « des agrégats qui peuvent avoir une taille supérieure (…) mais qui conservent des propriétés typiques de la nano-échelle ».

Toxicité encore mal connue

Généralement retenu dans les règlements sur les nanomatériaux, le seuil de 100 nanomètres n’a en réalité pas de fondement scientifique absolu. En tout état de cause, il est franchi dans les quatre échantillons expertisés.

Tous contiennent des nanoparticules dont la taille est inférieure à 100 nanomètres, dans des proportions variables : 2,5 % du total des particules pour les chewing-gums, 12 % pour les biscuits chocolatés, 16 % pour la blanquette de veau et… 100 % pour le mélange d’épices. Tous auraient donc dû être étiquetés. Même si les nanoparticules ne se retrouvent dans ces denrées qu’à l’état de traces, de l’ordre du millième, voire du cent millième du produit fini.

Surtout, la toxicité des nanomatériaux, pour la santé et pour l’environnement, est encore très mal connue. Leurs dimensions lilliputiennes – un nanomètre est environ 50 000 fois plus fin qu’un cheveu – leur confèrent des propriétés physiques, chimiques ou biologiques hors du commun, qu’il s’agisse de résistance, d’élasticité, de conductivité ou de réactivité.

Mais, en raison de cette très petite taille, ils peuvent pénétrer dans les poumons ou dans le sang, par inhalation ou par ingestion, et franchir les barrières physiologiques protégeant l’organisme : barrière cutanée, alvéolo-capillaire (isolant les alvéoles pulmonaires des vaisseaux sanguins), hémato-encéphalique (protégeant le cerveau des agents pathogènes du sang), placentaire (séparant les circulations sanguines de la mère et du fœtus)…

« Dans dix ans, il sera trop tard »

Dans un avis rendu en mai 2014, l’Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (Anses) a conclu que certains de ces matériaux microscopiques sont « toxiques pour l’homme ». Elle a donc appelé à « mettre en place un encadrement réglementaire européen renforcé » et à « peser l’utilité » de leur mise sur le marché.

« Nous ne disons pas que tous les nanomatériaux sont dangereux, précisait alors Dominique Gombert, directeur de l’évaluation des risques. Les incertitudes restent grandes et les recherches doivent être poursuivies. Mais il existe suffisamment de données scientifiques pour pointer les risques de certains d’entre eux. Dans dix ans, il sera trop tard pour seposer la question de leur encadrement. »

Lire aussi : Les nanomatériaux, ennemis invisibles et omniprésents

Toute la difficulté vient de ce que les nanomatériaux passent encore à travers les mailles du filet sanitaire européen. En effet, le système d’enregistrement, d’évaluation et d’autorisation Reach ne s’applique qu’aux productions chimiques de plus d’une tonne par an. Sa révision a été demandée par plusieurs pays, mais elle tarde à se concrétiser.

Appel à un « moratoire »

Pourtant, dès 2006, le Centre international de recherche sur le cancer (CIRC) a classé le dioxyde de titane (TiO2 ), même sous forme non nanométrique, comme « cancérigène possible » pour l’homme lorsqu’il est inhalé. Et voilà quelques jours, l’Anses a mis en consultation publique une proposition, soumise à l’Agence européenne des produits chimiques, de classer le TiO2 comme substance cancérogène par inhalation « présumée ».

Face à ces risques, même potentiels, Agir pour l’environnement appelle, en vertu du principe de précaution, à un « moratoire » sur l’incorporation de nanoparticules dans l’alimentation.

« Nous avons fait analyser quatre produits, mais bien d’autres sont probablement concernés. Il est inadmissible qu’on y trouve des nanoparticules non évaluées et non étiquetées,proteste Magali Ringoot, coordinatrice des campagnes de l’association. Les pouvoirs publics doivent protéger les consommateurs, particulièrement les publics vulnérables, comme les enfants et les femmes enceintes. »

Membre de l’Association de veille et d’information civique sur les enjeux des nanosciences et des nanotechnologies et rédactrice du site Internet VeilleNanos, Mathilde Detcheverry« espère que cette enquête, inédite en France, va inciter les associations de consommateurs à mener d’autres tests ». Et pousser les industriels comme les pouvoirs publics à instaurer « une transparence » sur le contenu de nos assiettes.

En savoir plus sur

LE MONDE | 15.06.2016 à 06h38 • Mis à jour le 15.06.2016 à 15h20 | Par Pierre Le Hir

  Pierre Le Hir

Journaliste au Monde




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