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Drones Close In On Farms, The Next Step In Precision Agriculture

[Source: Yamaha]

[Source: Yamaha]

Drones continue their steady approach into the different aspects of our lives. But while controversy rages over drone devastation over foreign soil and prying surveillance over US soil, experts are beginning to point our attention to the real future of unmanned aerial vehicles: farming.

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.

Drone sales for agriculture outpaces all non-military markets. [Source: AUVSI]

Drone sales for agriculture outpaces all non-military markets. [Source: AUVSI]

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.

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3 comments

  • Andrew Atkin says:

    I would like to see tilt-rotor versions. Much more efficient.

    Also these systems will be good for security, dispersed throughout a city and ready to go. They can lock onto and track a bad guy until the police can get to them in person. You could even have one come to you immediately via an alert from your GPS cellphone, if you think you’re in danger.

  • davidflynn says:

    Actually this is a good idea. It’s much better to use robots to spray Monsanto pesticides without human contact. All we need now is a robot AI awaking (of course programmed by Monsanto) to spray the people.

  • marcusuav says:

    There are a great number of ways to use a UAV on the farm, and crop checks are just the start of it. We here at Marcus UAV offer swapable payload bays so our customers can do everything from Livestock searches to hail damage assessments. Even multispectral image maps can be done from the same platform.

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