When you think of agriculture you straight away think of livestock, tractors, etc. For someone who knows nothing about farming, in my mind, traditional methods such as ploughing as well manual labour appear simultaneously. This common idea that a layperson has about farming will ultimately change in the very near future.
As the world steps closer to hitting 8 billion, there’s a real sense of urgency to feed the planet using sustainable methods.
This has therefore led to the emerging concept of precision agriculture – in a nutshell, a farm management concept that is based on observing, measuring and responding to both inter- and intra-field variability in crops. The end goal is to efficiently apply a farm and farmer’s limited resources to gain maximum yield. This requires constant observation, feedback in real-time and to produce data on the outcomes in terms of crop yields, plant health, plus any other data that needs to be monitored on a frequent basis. This is where Drones come in as they are an effective tool to collect aerial images, which in turn can generate meaningful data for farmers.
Drones for Agriculture – how does this work?
The beauty of using drones in agriculture is that they are simply a low-cost aerial camera platform, equipped with an autopilot using GPS and sensors for collecting relevant data, like a regular point-and-shoot camera for visible images. They allow a farmer to see things which you cannot see in the visible spectrum when kitted out with a multi-spectral sensor, such as moisture content in the soil, plant health, stress levels and fruits.
Having a drone is obviously great for 21st-century farming, however, having great software enhances future farming even more. Many of the latest agricultural drones are equipped with flight-planning software that let you outline a box around the field you want to survey on Google Maps, pretty cool, eh?
If you’re a bit of a geek and love all things related to data, the next part you’ll love. After landing, additional software is used to stitch together the geotagged photos in mosaic form and are then processed to interpret the amount of light that is reflected in different wavelengths. The main function of processing the collected from data makes areas of poor growth or stressed plants easy to identify. The data immediately paints a perfect picture of what interventions are needed, it also helps with decision-making.
In addition, other software packages such as downstream software packages use high-resolution images and data from the different sensors on a drone to generate a meaningful and insightful image. According to The Wire most agricultural drone operators use a tool like Pix4D or Correlator3D to turn these aerial images into useful data. The only downside with some of these software packages is that they rely on cloud services that are not always available in agricultural areas, especially in emerging economies such as India.
As the amount of drone users increases over time, the impact on the farming sector looks to be huge. For example, in The States, The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates farmers’ return-on-investment alone could be $12 per acre for corn and $2-3 per acre for soybeans and wheat. Globally, many countries have adopted drones into agricultural practices. Japan alone has around 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles, including many helicopters for agricultural uses.
Drones can be a potential tool to better control agricultural productivity. Trials have been underway in many tropical locations such as Sri Lanka, Brazil, Uganda, Tanzania, and Peru. Back in September, the International Water Management Institute carried out experimented in Sri Lanka using an eBee drone equipped with a near-infrared sensor. The idea behind the experiment was to show how drone equipment can give farmers an early warning of problems that might occur anywhere in their fields.
Although the use of drones in agriculture holds so much potential, it’s still in its infancy. The adoption of drones in agriculture also requires financial, legal and social policies put in place. Also, government legislation on the use of airspace to the development of laws that prohibit the use of drone surveillance over private property needs to be taken into consideration. This is one aspect of future farming where it is fair to say “watch this space” before we see a universal agricultural revolution.