Agricultural Drones & The Technological Future of Farming

Last updated October 25th, 2019
A large crop field

Drones are making an impact across many industries as more stakeholders awaken to their capabilities to perform key tasks and their potential to achieve even more in the near future.

One of those industries happens to be agriculture. Agricultural drones already contribute over $32b worth of services to farmers around the world.

And this number is only set to grow as more farmers awaken to the challenges of the times and the innovative solutions which farming drones present.

Another driving factor behind the steady rise of drones in the agricultural sphere is the falling costs of drones and their accessories which, in turn, have made it easier to recoup the costs of incorporating these drones into business processes.

For example, according to prominent mechatronics researcher Jonathan Gill, who is associated with the Harper Adams University in England, it is possible to recover the cost of a high-tech drone within three years.

Mr Gill’s estimations were largely based on a study he carried out involving a camera drone that cost €23,000 that took 3 years to pay back on a 200 hectare piece of farmland. And the payback came through increased yield as a result of more precise nitrogen monitoring — made possible by the high-tech drone camera.

But agricultural drones cost far less today than they did a few years ago when these studies were carried out.

Farmers could now expect to recoup the costs of their drones even faster.

With the capabilities of these farming drones advancing rapidly from year to year, one can only expect faster profits in the agricultural sector due to reduced man hours required per hectare and decreased fuel use, in addition to higher yield.

The loosening of regulations will also play a big part in maintaining the adoption going forward; suggesting that drones seem to have a bright future ahead as far as farming is concerned.

How Drones Are Being Used in Agriculture

There are several ways in which agricultural drones are changing the way we farm our food. Some of them include:

Crop Spraying

Farmers in certain parts of the world are using larger-sized drones to apply small quantities of pesticide and fertilizers to forest areas, orchards and crops.

Regulations have restricted this practise in some areas of the world, but in 2016, farmers in Australia joined their counterparts in the US, Switzerland, New Zealand and China, when they were given the go-ahead to apply pesticides using drones.

Progress has been slow in relieving some of the regulatory barriers in other areas due to concerns about the environment and counter-terrorism laws that by and large prevent drones from carrying payloads.

Some of the many benefits of crop spraying with agricultural drones include:

  • Zero ground compaction
  • Access to difficult terrain
  • Perfect for taller crops like maize
  • Spot spraying of small diseased areas or specific pest populations
  • Eases spraying under or around power lines pylons
  • Reduced environmental impact since areas are small
  • Lower costs in time spent, product wasted, and fuel needed

China leads the world at the moment in terms of using farmer drones to spray.

The drones the Chinese prefer are 2m in diameter and weigh about 20kg. They are capable of carrying a 10-litre payload to treat roughly 10,000 square metres per hour.

These drones use active radar systems and real time knowledge GPS to map out a pre-set route using precisely set locations. The downward and forward looking radar allows the drone to maintain a height close to the crop, minimizing the risk of chemical splashing about and being wasted.

These farming drones are also programmed with sophisticated object avoidance software that allows them navigate around potential obstructions.

Irrigation Problems

The larger the piece of land over which you have to irrigate, the more likely it is that problems will arise.

Farmers overseeing miles and miles of irrigation are increasingly turning to drones to pick up the slack.

Water and irrigation problems can run up the costs of farming and affect crop yields as well. But drones are tackling these irrigation issues in a number of ways, before they become troublesome.

For example, drones with thermal camera can help spot areas that are receiving too dry and in need of more moisture.

Agricultural drones with hyperspectral and multispectral sensors can identify areas that are receiving too much or too little moisture. The information gathered can be used to maximize drainage, adhere to natural land runoff, and overcome water pooling which is capable of damaging sensitive crops.

When the crop starts growing, agricultural drones enable farmers to calculate the vegetation index, which estimates the relative density and health of the crop, in addition to heat signature, which is the amount of energy or heat the crop gives off.

Surveying the Land

Drones can be useful from the earliest stages of the planting process.

Farmers are able to use drones to produce precise 3D maps of their soil for early soil analysis. The results of these analyses become important when determining the seed planting patterns, irrigation patterns, and even nitrogen-level management.

Farming drones are also very effective when surveying and monitoring large-scale crop.

In the past, farmers had to rely on satellite imaging or plane imaging to get a large scale view of large farms, but with drones are quickly relegating those days to the past.

Not only are drones less expensive for this purpose, they also give more precise images which make it easier to spot potential issues. Drones today are able to go beyond mere imaging to provide time-based animation that showcases crop progression in real time.

Other functions that survey farming drones carry out include:

  • Using infrared sensors to determine the health of the plants being surveyed based on the light absorption
  • Determining the current crop lifecycle
  • Analyzing land distribution based on crop type
  • Determining the current crop lifecycle
  • Producing detailed GPS maps of any crop area

These mapping and surveying features enable farmers to make decisions based on real-time data, rather than rough estimates or guesswork. This ultimately helps farmers maximize land and other resources, increasing profit.

Monitoring Livestock

The thermal imagine features of agricultural drones make them ideal for monitoring livestock.

A single drone pilot can monitor large numbers of livestock with this thermal imaging, making it easy for farmers to take stock of their animals with greater frequency and at less cost.

Drone operators can quickly check in on a herd from a control center and quickly find out if any animal is injured or missing or giving birth and in need of attention. All these things are usually time consuming and quite costly in terms of man hours.

In addition to watching the livestock, thermal imaging also makes it easier to spot their natural predator before they wreak havoc.

Seed Planting

Using agricultural drones for seed planting is relatively new and not yet widely practiced.

Some startups have been able to develop drone planters that achieve uptake rate of 75% and reduce planting costs by 85%. These agricultural drones shoot pods with seeds and nutrients into pre-prepared soil.

Ultimately, these farming drones could potentially minimize the need for on-the-ground labor during the planting stage, which would drive costs down and boost profits for farmers.

What Does the Future Hold for Drone Farming?

The future for farming drones could involve fleets or swarms being deployed, and possibly a farming cycle completely devoid of human intervention.

Aerial and ground agricultural drones could collect and analyze data, conduct the entire crop cycle beyond harvesting.

As of right now, it’s all about improving the existing capabilities of the farming drones, and more importantly getting legislation in place so that everything is correctly regulated.

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