Drones are expected to benefit farms both big and small – small farms can save money and resources through greater precision, big farms can map and characterize crop health and yield, for example, of large areas more easily. Such land monitoring was once performed on foot, with farmers seeing for themselves which areas need more water or fertilizer. With the advent of precision agriculture, remote sensing has already become vital to many large farm operations. Satellites and aircraft take pictures in infrared to determine water distribution and movement, as well as weed coverage. Thermal infrared sensors that measure heat can determine crop health from afar. Tractor booms are also being fitted with the multi-spectral cameras so that they can take measurements simultaneous with doing their jobs.
But now drones can offer on demand images much more inexpensively. High performance GPS allows these aerial farmers to be controlled with precision and remain stable. The CropCam is an RC glider plane equipped with a Pentax digital camera. It’s operated manually or preprogrammed on the ground to collect aerial photos to provide imagery for agriculture, forestry, environmental and other uses. Another is Airrobot’s ARB100-B used in France for agricultural surveying. And far ahead of their American counterparts, over 2,400 Yamaha RMAX Unmanned Helicopters are already tending to farmland across Japan, South Korea and Australia (these top-of-the-line machines cost $125,000 each).
And the RMAX can do more than just monitor, it can actually help with the farming. It’s equipped with a sprayer that can disperse granules, coated grains and fertilizers. The drone is smart enough to tell operators when airspeed is too high for optimal spread of material. And offering the farmer a rare opportunity to scale, up to six RMAXs can be operated simultaneously – tractors will need another gear just to keep up.As more farmers choose drones over tractors, aerial farming is expected to make a big impact on the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. A report, published earlier this month by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), estimates that 90 percent of potential markets for UAVs will be accounted for by public safety and precision agriculture. The FAA recently released a list of towns that have applied for UAV approval through October 2012 – there are 81 in all. The report predicts that widespread adoption of UAVs will inject $82 billion in economic activity and generate up to 100,000 new jobs between 2015 and 2025.
Ever improving drones continue to offer their services to warfare, surveillance, simple entertainment, and now to help farmers farm better. There’s no way to know right now if UAVs will fulfill AUVSI’s high economic expectations. But no doubt companies eager to find out will be locked in a dogfight to master the skies over US farms.