Corentin Roland watches a winged drone land in his field of rapeseed, his hands dug into trouser pockets in the damp winter chill outside the village of Montepilloy on the plains of northern France.
The unmanned aircraft, a black and yellow V-wing the span of a small seagull, has just finished a nine-minute flight over the 15-hectare (37-acre) plot. Within two days, a Paris-based company called Airinov will send the 23-year-old farmer an e-mail with a fertilizer plan for the field based on the gathered data.
Roland is one of thousands of French farmers, miners, energy companies and others using drones to monitor everything from weeds on railroad tracks to leaking river levees. France, one of the first countries to regulate commercial drone use in 2012, now has some 1,250 registered drone businesses — enough to outnumber the country’s wine appellations. “France is clearly one of the most advanced,” said Philippe Botteri, a London-based partner at Accel Partners, a venture capital firm that was one of the first investors in Facebook. “The market potential is in the billions.”
Other countries are arguably missing out, perhaps none more than the United States. Absent any formal regulation, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted 44 exemptions for commercial drone work so far, out of more than 664 requests. The agency proposed rules for small commercial drones last month, including a requirement for pilots to maintain visual contact with their aircraft, but that proposal will require months of consultation. “France has about a year of advance on the U.S.,” said Emmanuel de Maistre, CEO of Redbird, a Paris-based company that uses drones to survey railway tracks and mining quaries. “The regulation created the market.”
France has a knack for making rules, and drone regulations are no exception. Operators must pass a theory exam and show an aptitude flying a drone. For longer flights beyond line of sight, users must obtain a proper pilot’s license, as well as 100 hours of flying experience and 20 hours of drone training.
Piloting smaller drones for fun doesn’t require exams or a permit. Still, some rules apply there as well, including a ban on flying over crowds or “sensitive sites” such as nuclear plants, with penalties of up to a year in prison and a 75,000-euro fine. French authorities have reported drones overflying nuclear submarine bases and the Elysee presidential palace as well as multiple nighttime flights over Paris.
The global commercial drone industry stands to grow from about $60.5 million last year to $1.1 billion by 2023, according to Phil Finnegan, an analyst at Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, and French companies are well-positioned for this growth. Delair-Tech, based in Toulouse, the home of Airbus, makes a commercial drone certified for long distances, with autonomous flight and a range of 200 kilometers. In addition to monitoring the railway tracks for French national high-speed operator SNCF, RedBird has also developed drone uses for quarries, which de Maistre, said can reduce mining companies’ fuel costs by 10 percent by optimizing truck traffic.
Airinov has moved beyond the business of flying drones to data crunching. The company now works with more than a dozen of France’s drone operators, offering data analysis and growing advice to farmers.
“We’re the first with a turnkey product,” said Romain Faroux, co-founder of Airinov.
Airinov plans to introduce drone detection of weeds this year that will tell farmers where to spray, lowering costs and the environmental impact of pesticide use.
Back on Roland’s farm, Benjamin Bouly, an independent drone operator hired by Airinov, loads his eBee drone into the back of his car before wiping the greasy mud off his shoes and heading to the next job. The previous day, he had completed 20 flights covering 350 hectares of rapeseed.
Airinov expects to commission about 20,000 flights from drone operators such as Bouly this year from 5,000 in 2014, according to Faroux. The company’s fertilizer consults can translate to a gain for rapeseed farmers of 20 to 100 euros per hectare. The service, including the price of two drone flyovers and analysis of the collected data, costs about 15 euros per hectare, he said.
For Roland, the drone saves time and brings more precision compared to the usual method of analyzing rapeseed samples. Roland also plans to begin using Airinov for the 100 hectares of wheat he grows with two other farmers.
“Precision agriculture is the future for us and we’re starting this year,” Roland said, citing the ever-tougher squeeze on margins. “Crop prices are low and the cost of fertilizer and pesticides are high.”
Airinov plans to expand its offer to neighboring countries with established drone regulation and similar markets in farming, with the U.K. a prime candidate, Faroux said.
“In France, companies are really focusing on processing data,” Botteri said. “In other countries they’re still trying to figure out how to fly a drone and what information can be captured.” — With Alan Levin and Caroline Connan
For more, read this QuickTake: Domesticating Drones