How Drones Are Revolutionizing Agriculture?

How Drones Are Revolutionizing Agriculture?
With the world supply at an all-time high and commodity prices at an all-time low as a result of increasing demands in food production and consumption, the modern farming industry is at a crossroads. There is a greater need than ever before for farmers and agronomists across the globe to improve resource management in response to tightening budgets, while the “farm to fork” movement has seen rising pressure for enhanced product traceability, as consumers become more interested in the origin of the goods they purchase and how they were grown.

A landmark report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that sustainable land management could be key to reversing the impact of climate change on land degradation – a significant consequence of human and agricultural activity and extreme weather conditions, in which the quality of land and soil is polluted or degraded. The report claims that this could provide “cost-effective, immediate and long-term benefits”.  With this in mind, it is crucial that farms change how they operate to not only mitigate the effects of climate change, but to protect themselves against economic loss.

Sustainable agricultural management with the help of Drones:

The use of drones in the agriculture industry is steadily growing as part of an effective approach to sustainable agricultural management that allows agronomists, agricultural engineers, and farmers to help streamline their operations, using robust data analytics to gain effective insights into their crops. Crop monitoring, for example, is made easier by using drone data to accurately plan and make ongoing improvements, such as the use of ditches and evolving fertilizer applications. Products can be accurately traced from farm to fork using GPS locations for every point in the journey, rather than more traditional time and labor-intensive data collection.

UAVs are particularly useful for the careful monitoring of large areas of farmland, considering factors such as slope and elevation, for example, to identify the most suitable seeding prescriptions. The technology has also proven useful in gaining an extensive overview of plant emergence and population, as more accurate data can help with replanting decisions, as well as thinning and pruning activity and the improvement of crop models.

Crucially, the high-resolution nature of drone data can be used to assess the fertility of crops, allowing agricultural professionals to more accurately apply fertilizer, reduce wastage, and plan – and troubleshoot – irrigation systems. The technology can also be particularly effective following natural disasters, such as a flood, to help farmers to assess damage across terrains that may not be readily accessible on foot.

How a Drone is useful for agriculture:

Drones are small and light aerial vehicles which may fly at extremely high altitudes and carry various navigation systems or recording devices such as RGB cameras, infrared cameras, and other sensors. Due to their ability to deploy various sensors and capture high-resolution and low-cost images of crop conditions, drones are very useful in farming. 

Initially used for chemical spraying, today drones are a great tool for capturing aerial imagery with platform mounted cameras and sensors. Images can range from simple visible-light photographs to multi-spectral imagery that can be used to assess different aspects of plant health, weeds, and assets.

Drones collect raw data and translate it with algorithms into useful information. Therefore, they can be used for various applications in farming, such as the monitoring of the following parameters:

  • Crop health; damage made by pests, color change due to pest infection
  • Vegetation indices; leaf area, anomaly detection, treatment efficacy, phenology, yield
  • Plant height; plant height and density
  • Plant scouting; plant size, plot statistics, stand number, compromised plots, planter skips
  • Water needs; water-stressed parts of the field/orchard in need of watering
  • Soil analysis; nutrient availability for plant nutrient management

Drones help farmers optimize the use of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, water, and pesticides more efficiently. This allows timely protection of crops from pests, saves time for crop scouting, reduces overall cost in farm production, and secures high yield and quality crops.

agricultural uses of drone

Uses of drones:

  • To optimize inputs: fertilizers, seeds, water
  • React faster to threats: weed, pests, fungi
  • Save time in scouting: Treatments and actions
  • Real time mapping
  • Estimate yield
  • Precision fertilizer programme planning:

    Nitrogen deficient areas in a crop can be clearly identified from above using drones fitted with cameras that have enhanced sensors. The sensors are calibrated to limit the effect of changing sunlight levels and allow a more accurate calculation of the green area to be made. Flying operations start from the late winter with drones taking hundreds of images of the crop’s developing canopy. The images are then stitched together to form a map and software is used to identify early growth patterns. From there a precise fertilizer programme can be tailored to match the crop’s varying nutrient requirements in different areas of the field.
  • Weed and disease control programmes:

    Using similar techniques to the fertilizer planning, drone operators can accurately assess weed and disease levels in arable crops. The drone gathers data that identifies the differing reflective properties of various plant species and areas of the crop which have succumbed to disease. When this information is allied to software and analyzed, weed species and disease can be pinpointed and targeted with high precision crop control measures. Orchards can also make use of the technology with accurate identification and tagging of trees infected with a range of diseases.
  • Tree and land mapping:

    As well as the disease control aspect, orchard fruit growers can benefit from reports on tree and row spacing with accurate calculations of canopy coverage. The same applies to forestry and timber production where drones can play an important role in accessing remote sites on terrain that would otherwise be difficult to cover. The ability to cover large ground areas is a major benefit for mapping generally. Hundreds of hectares can be mapped in a day with the most sophisticated systems accurately pinpointing changes in terrain and boundary features to within 10cm. The data captured then creates a 3D computer model to highlight ground features and any changes that may have occurred. The information can be used to give area measurements for administration purposes or fed into machinery software to help the operator avoid hazards such as electric cables, flooded areas, changes in water courses, or drainage hardware. The drone has a significant advantage over a more time-consuming ground-based system which would involve travelling to, and moving around, the sites and logging GPS co-ordinates.
  • Crop Spraying:

    Larger drones are already capable of applying small quantities of pesticide or fertilizer to crops, orchards and forested areas. However, only a handful of regions and countries permit the use of drones for this type of task. Since September 2016 farmers in Queensland, Australia, were granted permission to apply pesticides from drones, joining farmers in the USA, Switzerland, New Zealand and China. The main legislative barriers are bans on aerial spraying which were implemented due to environmental concerns and counter terrorism laws that broadly prevent drones from carrying payloads. Work is underway in numerous countries to amend rules to allow spraying to go ahead because of the potential benefits which include:
    - Zero ground compaction
    - Spraying taller crops (maize)
    - Access to difficult terrain
    - Spraying under or around power lines pylons
    - Spot spraying of small diseased areas or pest populations
    - Lower cost in time, wasted product and fuel
    - Reduced environmental risks as areas are small
    One country which has led aerial spraying using drones is China. The drones used are approximately 2m in diameter, weigh about 20kg and can carry a 10-litre payload to treat about 1ha/hr. Active radar systems and real time knowledge (RTK) gps are programmed into the drone which then flies a pre-set route at location accuracies down to 1cm. The forward and downward looking radar systems allow the drone to keep a consistently low height above the crop, minimising the chance of spray drift. Sophisticated object avoidance software also means the drone can navigate around obstructions.


 The Future:

    • Drone swarms:

      While most spraying is carried out using single drone units to either patch, strip or spot spray, rapidly developing technology within the drone may allow much larger areas to be sprayed in the future. Drones are already capable of communicating with each other to avoid collisions and to fly in formation. This could allow a string or swarm of drones to apply pesticide across whole fields in the future. While trials are under way, the main obstacle to success could lie in legislation with governments and military officials wary of terrorist threat presented by a swarm of unmanned aircraft. 
    • Plant Pollination:

      A decline in bee numbers has prompted worldwide concern over the future of plant pollination which underpins horticultural and agricultural production. In Japan, researchers have investigated the use of drones to carry out the task. Measuring just four centimetres across and weighing only 15 grams, the drone has proved it is capable of pollinating flowers without damaging the plant. The research team is now progressing with an auto-piloted version that could be unleashed by the grower to carry out the work on its own.
    • Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) flying:

      A common component of drone legislation is a safety restriction, limiting maximum operating distances to 500m. Within that distance the pilot must also have Visual Line Of Sight at all times. However, pilots claim that these rules are severely limiting the technology’s potential. For example, if a field boundary being mapped is more than 500m distant, or undulating fields or trees block the line of sight, the operator must gather up equipment and move.
      Operators and manufacturers are pressing the case for these restrictions to be lifted. They argue that BVLOS flying would be a game-changer for the drone industry and that it is safe because of developments in on-board safety technology. Sense-and-avoid systems, remote viewing using imaging devices and pre-programmed return-to-base measures, which are triggered if the drone loses contact, all mean drones can be safely operated in rural areas. Further testing of this technology is taking place with the aim of proving that BVLOS flying could be safe and become a reality in the near future.

Some Queries regarding agricultural uses of Drones

1. How high can an agricultural drone fly?
Drones fly around 50 - 100m high.            

2. Is any special license required to fly agricultural drones?
Currently, flying agricultural drones depends on national laws. Nonetheless a training is normally required. 

3. What are the best weather conditions to fly a drone over a field?
A drone can fly under any weather condition. Drones are water resistant, but image quality can be damaged if pictures are taken during rainy weather.

4. What distances can agricultural drones fly?
It depends on the drone capability and size. Fixed wings drones have longer flight time and can cover more field in one flight. For instance, 50 min flight time will cover up to 12km2.

5. What makes the difference between images taken by a drone and satellite images?
Drones can take pictures with a resolution down to a few cm per pixel. A drone can get higher quality and higher precision of images in real time as they can fly below the clouds. Besides, a satellite only takes pictures once a week or once a month.

6. What kind of information can farmers get from the images?
Raw data collected by drones gets translated into useful and comprehensible information for farmers thanks to specific algorithms. Some of the information these images provide is:
Plant counting: plant size, plot statistics, stand number, compromised plots, planter skips),
Plant height: crop height and density
Vegetation indices: leaf area, anomaly detection, treatment efficacy, infestations, phenology
Water needs: damage/drown out
Drones ensure a permanent monitoring of the crop in the field from planting to harvest.
    7. What are the main benefits farmers can get from the use of ag drones?
    Drones can help farmers to optimize the use of inputs (seed, fertilizers, water), to react more quickly to threats (weeds, pests, fungi), to save time crop scouting (validate treatment/actions taken), to improve variable-rate prescriptions in real time and estimate yield from a field.
      8. What are the advantages of combining smart agricultural machinery and agricultural drones?
      As of today, drones cannot communicate directly with agricultural equipment. Drones fly over the field and take high resolution pictures. The data gathered is directly sent to the cloud/software and made available to the customer. Thanks to this data, the user can select the information wanted from the images and make different prescription maps depending on the operation the farmer wants to perform on the field. The maps can then be uploaded on the farm equipment which will adjust the amount of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) that would need to be applied in the field accordingly.
        9. What are the expectations for this market to grow in the coming years?
        It is expected that the use of drones will grow significantly in farming as they offer a wide range of applications to improve precision agriculture.
          10. How much does an agricultural drone cost?
          A standard drone for public use starts at USD$1,500. In the agricultural sector, small drones without specific technology can go from USD$2,500 to $3,000. The higher technological drones used specifically for agriculture start at USD$25, 000.



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              It was interesting to read about how the use of drones in the agriculture industry is growing at a steady rate. I would imagine that drones would be a good thing to have if you are a farmer that has a lot of acreage and large fields. A drone would be able to help the farmer perform a lot of work in a reasonable amount of time.

              Thomas Clarence

              It’s great that this article mentions how drones can help with sustainable agricultural management. I’d imagine that you would also want to ensure you get other equipment that helps with this in order to get the best results. Going online would probably give you the chance to research drones and other agricultural equipment to find things that fit your needs.

              Erika Brady

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