Working out of a lab full of drones, an agriculture expert approached us, “I think drones and farming could be the perfect fit.” Five months later, we were standing in a field commanding an in-flight drone while monitoring its movements and progress with an iPad that I had created. As the design lead, I had crafted an experience where drone consultants could gather agriculture data and farmers make smarter, more profitable decisions.

We focused on the human-drone interaction to create a marketplace to connect farmers and drone consultants


October 2014 - February 2015

Design Lead

IBM Research
3 Researchers/Engineers
2 UX Designers
1 Pilot and Drone Hobbyist
1 Project Sponsor (academic expert in precision agriculture)

Methods/Skills Used
Low to High Fidelity Design Prototypes
Speed Dating
Affinity Diagramming
User Testing

Why drones and farming?

Most farms cover thousands and thousands of acres, which need to be monitored regularly for crop growth, moisture levels, weeds, pests, and more. Drones can gather this data cheaply and effectively. With the data analysis, farmers can make decisions with more information and precision than ever before.

Kicking off with user Research

“When you see it from the air, you see a whole new perspective”
- Wheat farmer

The project began with interviews — farmers, agronomists, and some agricultural specialists within IBM. Based on initial findings, we storyboarded seven scenarios and added a speed dating exercise. The storyboards helped to take a very conceptual discussion and make it more tangible for the interviewees. We grew to understand the problems that drones may solve, while anticipating others they might create.

One of seven speed dating scenarios: On a scale of 1-7, from very unlikely to very likely, do you see yourself farming in this way? Why? Benefits? Drawbacks?

One of seven speed dating scenarios:
On a scale of 1-7, from very unlikely to very likely, do you see yourself farming in this way? Why? Benefits? Drawbacks?

"Farmers are very very conservative,
so they are private and don't want to share anything."
- Family member of farmers

Research Insights

  1. The needs of every crop and every farm are unique - solutions must be customizable
  2. Farmers are private people who are slow to trust
  3. Farmers want control over their land and anything or anyone who interacts with it

Design Principles

  1. Provide control over the farm and happenings within it
  2. Engage the farmer so he touches and smells the land
  3. Be trustworthy
  4. Be transparent, share what is happening and why

Designing the app for drone consultants

The farmer should be closer to his land than ever before

We decided the appropriate platform would be an iPad app. It’s mobile, but also large enough to examine imagery of the farms. The main functionality included:

  • Managing data collection tasks
  • Deploying drones to collect the data
  • Monitoring the drones while flying

Moving from sketches to higher fidelity wireframes and user testing, we ran through many iterations on the design of the iPad app.

Drone operators will have limited focus on the mobile app. Imagine operating a drone on a farm, you’re outside with eyes on the drone, but also the iPad in hand. You must monitor the drone’s status and safety and also ensure that it’s correctly completing the job. We designed the alerts to include visual, auditory (beeping and voice commands) and haptic (vibration) feedback.

App for farmers

In our model, farmers are connected to marketplace where they can request drone data collection. Using our app, they can specify the details of their requests and connect to the drone consultants.

My Experience 

Drones and agriculture proved to be an intriguing combination. The farming industry is going through huge upheaval, but at its heart are a set of people who are very passionate about their work. In agriculture, old, traditional methods are colliding with advanced technologies.

Flying drones is tough (yes, there were accidents)! However, there is an interesting opportunity to consider the interaction patterns, which are not yet standardized, between drone hardware and mobile devices.  We designed to new heights.