Why Drones Are Finding a Home on the Farm

When I hear the word ‘drone’, the first thing I think of is a top-secret mission: spying, rescues, clandestine deliveries, and other James Bond-worthy uses of a seemingly mysterious technology. Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies, because in reality drones are now being used for practical, non-top-secret purposes across various industries. Agricultural drones in particular are becoming such an integral tool for farmers and food producers that it’s likely they helped get at least one of your meals on the table today.

With the global population predicted to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, efficient food production is critical to maintaining human health and quality of life worldwide. Drones in agriculture have already enabled major advances in efficiency, and more are surely on the way.

Modern farms are big… really big

Imagine a farm 4 miles wide by 40 miles long: 160 square miles of crops that need to be planted, irrigated, fertilized, monitored, and harvested. Of all these tasks, monitoring could be considered the most important: if a section of crops is battling pest infestation or poor irrigation, the issue needs to be identified and addressed before it spreads.

The good old-fashioned crop monitoring method was simple: walk through the fields and look at the plants. But for 160 square miles (not to mention much larger areas), this would take a while.

Until recently, satellite imaging was the most cutting-edge solution, allowing farmers to view aerial photographs of large swaths of land, but a lack of precision, low image quality on cloudy days, and high costs pointed to a need for cheaper, better imaging and monitoring techniques.

Enter drones

Drones give farmers a new perspective thanks to their low-altitude view; they fly from a few meters above the ground up to 120 meters, which is the regulatory altitude for unmanned aircraft operating without clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

From this altitude range, drone cameras can take multispectral images, using visible light (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) light to identify which plants reflect different amounts of green light and NIR light. Together, these are used to produce multi-spectral images that can highlight healthy and distressed plants. Multiple images of the same area over time can be combined to create a time-series animation, which shows large-scale changes in crops and opportunities for better crop management.

Beyond higher resolution, multispectral images, and on-demand availability, crop monitoring via drones is cheaper than other methods. As the technology advances, prices will continue to drop. In fact, the price of a basic agricultural drone is already relatively affordable at $1,000.

Besides the up-front cost, regulation is another potential barrier to entry for farmers interested in using drones. Passed in 2012, Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act gave the secretary of transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to operate safely in the national airspace. As of August 2015, the FAA had issued more than 1,000 Section 333 exemptions, and regulations have loosened more since then; regulators are recognizing the importance of enabling drone technology across multiple industries.

In agriculture, besides crop monitoring, drones can help with:

  • Irrigation: Hyperspectral, multispectral or thermal sensors pinpoint dry areas, and once a crop is growing, they facilitate the calculation of the vegetation index and show the heat signature.
  • Spraying: Distance-measuring equipment enables a drone to adjust altitude as the topography and geography vary, scanning the ground and spraying only the necessary amount of pesticide time for even coverage, reducing the amount of chemicals that leach into groundwater.
  • Planting: UK startup BioCarbon Engineering has developed a technique where drones carry pressurized canisters of biodegradable seed pods and shoot them into the ground, where the pods break open and seeds can take root.

drone report released in March 2013 by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that the legalization of commercial drones would create more than $80 billion of positive economic impact (i.e., revenue and job creation) between 2015 and 2025.

The predicted biggest piece of that growth? Agriculture.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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