The Foreseer | Global Trends

Agricultural Drones

By in @Home, Technology on February 11, 2015

Drones have become as ubiquitous as tractors…

Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage. Even though the vast majority of drone use today is government and military, one of the big emerging markets will be agriculture. Several new companies have begun moving into the ag-drone space, but there are a few short-term problems.

This picture taken on April 15, 2014 shows a man controlling a drone to spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou, central China's Anhui province. Image by: STR / AFP

This picture taken on April 15, 2014 shows a man controlling a drone to spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou, central China’s Anhui province.
Image by: STR / AFP

For example, in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration recently released new rules governing the use of drones, and farmers, who see drones as a way to get a birds-eye view of their fields and monitor crops, to precisely deliver fertilizer and pesticides were watching carefully. Commercial use of drones is still widely banned in the U.S., but many farmers are using them over their property anyway, daring federal regulators to put a stop to it. An eye in the sky can help a farmer know what his or her crops need, and what might be afflicting them. Current FAA rules limit their operation to under 400 feet and to steer clear of airports and crowds on the ground. But that will change in a couple years. The U.S. Congress has mandated the FAA incorporate drones into national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

Many in this new industry are chomping at the bit to get started. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, once drones get okayed for the national air space, the first 3 years will produce $13.6 billion in economic activity and 34,000 new manufacturing jobs will get created. The FAA estimated up to 10,000 drones could be airborne in the U.S. by 2018. Here’s why that number is far too low.

The automation of farming has led to fewer people tending massive estates, with many growing to tens of thousands of acres. This means there are fewer eyes inspecting crops, with less chance of catching problems like disease, infestations, soil issues, or other deficiencies. Drones, however, have the ability to amp up awareness, giving farmers powerful tools for managing both the plant and its growing environment throughout its lifecycle.

Here are a few current examples of the type of inspections and research that can be automated through the use of drones:

  • Terrain, rock, tree, and obstacle mapping
  • Hybrid lifecycle charting
  • Chlorophyll damage detection
  • Ground cover profiling
  • Wind profile and wind shear assessment
  • Temperature and barometric pressure profiling
  • Spore, dust, pollen counts
  • Water quality assessments and survey
  • Methane, ammonia, and CO2 sensing
  • Trait assessment for breeding
  • Wireless data collection from ground sensors
  • Plant status tracking
  • Crop status (growing stage, yield estimates, etc.)
  • Precision Agriculture prescription data
  • Tiling/drainage evaluation and survey
  • Time-saving pre-assessment for field tasks
  • Oblique shots for de-tassel timing
  • Drainage estimates and topography
  • Planting evaluation and replanting requirements
  • Pathogen introduction and tracking + Weed levels

Further reading available here.

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