Advance of the Drones

Agriculture has always been an industry that fully embraces technological innovations: whether to maximise the productivity of crops and livestock, gain a better understanding of the natural processes involved, or to simply make the life of the modern farmer a bit easier. Drones are by no means a new invention, but taking advantage of the rapid innovations in their technology in the past years, they have been revolutionising virtually every industry: from payload transportation to space exploration, and (maybe more radically than most) agriculture.

UAVs, quads, or drones are a tool unlike any other. And in a world where organizations are under constant pressure to become more time- and resource-efficient in the way they deliver their services, people are finding all sorts of innovative ways to employ their versatility and unique advantages to maximize efficiency and increase profits many fold. But how is it done, and perhaps more importantly, what are the next big steps in drone agriculture?

The present

A current tech agricultural drone usually performs one of four main tasks:

GPS Map Creation: Using its vantage point, an agricultural drone equipped with on-board camera(s) can create detailed 3D maps of the crop field, embedded with multiple layers of information. The GPS map gives farmers a near real-time overview of their property, which can be used to plan where crops should be planted. Furthermore, multispectral, thermal and many other sensors can identify the parts of a field that need immediate attention (e.g. dry soil). The precise development of a crop can be monitored and presented to the farmer via animation, to reveal production inefficiencies, enabling better crop management.

Planting: New drone planting systems are currently under development, that can take advantage of data gathered by other systems to optimise their performance. The result? An uptake rate as high as 75% and decrease costs by up to 85%. Pods with seeds and nutrients are delivered into the soil at the optimal depth, distance from each other, etc. This way the plant grows under the best conditions possible.

Crop Field Monitoring: Monitoring vast crop fields has always been an immense obstacle for farmers. The cost of aerial or satellite imagery has been prohibitive for many, and a financial burden even for those who can afford it. On top of that, in the last two decades we have seen some of the most unpredictable and severe weather conditions, which adds to the challenge. The technology in drones has the potential of tackling those issues. Here’s an example: Using its Near-InfraRed and visible light sensors, the drone scans a crop, collecting data on the different amounts of green and NIR light different plants reflect. This information is stored in its database and compared with readings of the same plants overtime, to give the user a wholistic overview of the inner workings of the field. Being able to identify potential problems and carry out the necessary actions swiftly and precisely, can prove invaluable to farmers: not only can it save time, energy, and improve the longevity of crops, but effective documentation can also be used for insurance reasons in those cases when crop loss is unavoidable.

Crop Spraying: Employing the help of drones to deliver the necessary liquids to the crops can be a game changer. Using proximity sensors and intelligent AI, a drone can adjust its position continuously in fields with varying topography and deliver the exact amount of liquid each plant needs. Modulating distance from the ground, flow rate and other parameters for even and effective coverage means a vastly more efficient method of farming compared to traditional machinery, a reduction of chemicals penetrating into groundwater, and a lower overall cost for the farmer. On top of that, aerial spraying is estimated to take up to five times less with drones, compared to older methods!

The Future

With the world’s population projected to reach 9 billion people within the next 30 years, it is safe to say that agricultural consumption is also going to grow exponentially over the same period. Meanwhile, technologies keep making leaps forward virtually every day- and with it, so do the industries which utilize them to maximize effectiveness and productivity. Right now, the addressable value of drone-powered solutions for agriculture is around $130 billion. Among the areas that are advancing the fastest is agriculture, where many challenges can be addressed with the help of drones.

The Agricultural industry must keep embracing new and innovative strategies for producing food like it has done in the past, evolving alongside a world with ever-growing demands. Drones can, and most definitely will, be a part of the solution, as long as innovators and the industry work towards a common goal.