Photo credit: Lima Pix via Flickr.

Drones have become quite a big buzzword of late because they have the potential to literally be buzzing everywhere in the future. Delivery companies want to use them to speed up package shipments, oil companies want to use them to monitor hard to reach places before they drill, and park rangers want to use them to monitor wildlife. Next on the list could be farmers as agriculture service and supply company Wilbur-Ellis is testing out a drone that could be used by farmers to monitor their crops.

A history of helping farmers
Despite a long and storied history having been founded in 1921 as a fish-oil supplier, Wilbur-Ellis isn't a company that many have heard about. That's largely due to the fact that it has stayed off the grid, so to speak, as the private company has avoided the attention that comes with being linked to Wall Street. Instead, it has continued to do what it does best, which is to provide solutions to farmers. Each year the company tallies more than $3 billion in revenue derived from the sale of agricultural and industrial products such as animal feed, seeds, fertilizers and machinery as well as providing consulting, pesticide management, and other agricultural-related services.

However, one of the company's calling cards has been to make strategic investments to capture new opportunities. That's due to a mission of exploring the role of emerging technologies that have the potential to improve farming. This mission of improvement has helped the company not only grow sales, but maintain consistent profitability for nearly a century. Its latest step has the company testing out drone technology to see if it could help farmers in the future.

Looking to the future
Earlier this year the company received FAA approval for the commercial use of a drone that will be tested in South Dakota. It didn't make the drone, but instead will fly the AgDrone, which is made by Oregon start-up Honeycomb. That drone, which is battery powered and equipped with visual and spectral-imagery cameras, can be used to map fields and spot crop problems.

Wilbur-Ellis will initially use the AgDrone to scout fields and generate chemical prescription maps that are based on plant heath. This will enable it to target only sections of the field that will need to be treated thus saving farmers money and reducing the amount of chemicals sprayed on a field. It's just one of many potential applications for the technology that could help improve the efficiency of farming.

That being said, drones are still very early stage for farming. Further, the cost of the drone itself is $15,000 and just one year of data processing costs another $6,000 per drone. Both of those figures are what HoneyComb charges so the actual cost to farmers could be higher as Wilbur-Ellis would likely serve as a distributor if it moves forward with the technology. However, if the drone tests do show that farmers can apply less treatments to their fields by only targeting plants that need it then this could prove to be a very useful technology for farmers if it can save them money while also improving crop yield.

Wilbur-Ellis is hoping to find the next cutting edge technology that will improve farmer profitability so that it too can continue on its path of generating consistent profitability. That's why it's willing to be a first mover to test drone technology before it becomes a widespread revolution. By embracing change this one-time fish-oil supplier has been able to withstand the test of time as it hasn't shied away from the opportunity to expand into new fields, which have been the key to its long-term growth as a company.