How Drones Are Changing Agriculture

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Although agricultural drone use in the United States is still in its infancy, the benefits it provides cannot be understated. Countries like Japan have already utilized drones to assist rice growers and industry heads are quickly taking note.

Make no doubt about it, agricultural drone use is catching on. Precision agriculture allows farmers to use drones to measure and observe crop variability. The automated planting and close monitoring of plant health also raises crop viability and profit. The following examples further illustrate how drones are changing agriculture, improving it, and enhancing production.

Crop Monitoring 

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Unpredictable weather conditions, vast acreage and limited technology made crop monitoring to be quite the challenge. Furthermore, costly satellite images used in the past required images to be ordered in advance and could only capture one photo a day. Oftentimes, the photo quality was low thanks to atmospheric conditions and satellite locations. Today, drones can provide time-series animations at a fraction of the cost, revealing production inefficiencies and real time development of a crop. A visual inspection or aerial survey costs $2 per acre, which makes the return on investment quick and painless. In fact, farmers have reported getting a $15 return on investment, covering the price of a drone within the first half of the growing season.

Assessing Crop Health

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Using both visible and near-infrared light, drones can identify plants reflecting different amounts of NIR and green light. The multispectral images produced can then illustrate track changes in the plants and give an indication of their overall health. The speedy delivery of images alert farmers to any issues, allowing them to remedy the issue and save the remainder of the crop if a plant cannot overcome the disease. The benefits are extensive. Farmers have an increased crop yield and in case failure does occur, they can turn over any drone images when making insurance claims. 

Crop Spraying 

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Thanks to the affordability of distance-measuring technology, drones can be fitted with ultrasonic echoing and lasers. This allows them to adjust their location and altitude across any terrain and prevent accidents while spraying a crop. Crops are evenly sprayed despite location without being overly saturated or missed entirely. The reliability of the drones also results in quick ground overage, completing a crop spraying up to five times faster than traditional means. 

Planting 

Drone planting systems now have the ability to shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing a crop with all it needs to sustain successful growth. The speed and efficiency of this planting method also results in an uptake rate of 75 percent while cutting planting costs by 85 percent. 

 

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Irrigation

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Drones outfitted with thermal, hyperspectral or multispectral sensors can quickly identify which crops are dry. Furthermore, drones can also calculate the density and health of the crop and provide the heat signature, alerting the farmer which crops are in need of more water and which crops need less. This efficient use of water is a tremendous cost saving measure when water costs rise and droughts strike a region. Careful irrigation also reduces the chances of fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers, preventing the unnecessary death of aquatic life and dangerous algae blooms. 

Soil and Field Analysis 

Before the planting of a crop begins, drones can produce 3-D maps for early soil analysis. After the seed planning pattern is complete, drones can then monitor the quality of the soil and provide data on nitrogen levels and irrigation requirements. 

Prospective Weed Removal 

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Researchers from New Zealand based firm AgResearch are undertaking an ambitious plan to outfit drones with lasers and sensors. “The idea is to mount specialist cameras on the drone that can first identify the weeds based on their unique chemical signatures and how they reflect light, and precisely map their locations using GPS,” program director Kioumars Ghamkhar stated. “From there, we think smart spraying rather than systemic and non-targeted use of chemicals or the right kind of laser mounted on the drone could home in and damage the weed. We know there are lasers now available that could be suitable, and that they are extremely accurate. So if lasers are used, it would also avoid damaging the useful plants around the weed.”

The evolution of agricultural drones could not have come at a better time. Weather anomalies and disasters including droughts, temperature fluctuations, wildfires and hurricanes are deeply cutting the profit margins of today's farmers and putting the general population's food security at risk as prices consequently rise. Fortunately, the development of affordable technology provides farmers a choice when they may have been adverse to investing in drones in the past. What is important to note is that hesitation in farm technology is historical, with farmers balking at mechanized threshers when they first arrived on the market as an example. Agricultural drones are simply another technological advancement and tool to be utilized.

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