In almost every sector of the economy, drone usage is growing fast, but in the agricultural industry, it is exploding. The agricultural drone market is expected to grow to $4.8 billion in 2024 from $1.2 billion in 2019. A few short years from now, drones will become ubiquitous on large and small-scale farms for everything from scouting to security. An important part of precision agriculture is the use of drones on farms to gather information that can be used to improve agronomic decisions.
Precision farming operations in many areas have already incorporated drones into large-scale operations. Drones record fields to aid farmers in planning planting and treatments so that they can increase yields. The use of precision farming systems has been reported to increase yields by as much as 5%, an impressive increase in an industry whose profit margins are typically narrow.
The purpose of this article is to examine how drones are already used on farms, how new agricultural drone technologies are being investigated, and how widespread drone usage in agriculture can be accomplished.
Plant health scouting/monitoring
The use of drone imagery for plant health monitoring has already been proven successful. Drones equipped with special imaging equipment called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), use detailed colour information to determine plant health. This allows farmers to monitor crops as they grow, allowing any problems to be addressed quickly. NDVI is illustrated in this image.
The health of crops is also monitored by drones using regular cameras. In many cases, farmers already use satellite imagery for crop monitoring, but satellite data is costly and less effective than closer drone imagery. Cloud cover and poor lighting conditions are less of a factor when drones fly close to fields than when satellites are used. Satellite imaging may offer millimetre-level accuracy, but drone imaging can produce millimetre-level accuracy
Monitoring the conditions in the field
As part of drone field monitoring, soil and field conditions are also monitored. Growers can find irregularities in the field with drone mapping that includes elevation data. The elevation of a field is useful for determining drainage patterns and wet/dry spots so that more efficient watering methods can be implemented. Nitrogen level monitoring is also offered by some agricultural drone retailers and service providers. As a result, organic fertilizers company can be applied precisely, eliminating poor growing spots and improving soil health over time.
Planting and seeding
In agriculture, drones are used for seed planting, a newer and less widespread use. Today, drone seeders are mostly used in the forestry industry, but their use is expected to become more widespread in the future. Drones make it possible to replant very hard-to-reach areas without endangering workers. Two operators and ten drones are able to plant 400,000 trees a day with a team of two operators.
Application of sprays
Spraying with drones is already a common practice in south-east Asia, with approximately 30% of South Korea’s agriculture spraying carried out by drones. A drone sprayer is capable of reaching very difficult areas, such as steep tea fields at high altitudes. By using drone sprayers, workers save the risk of being injured when carrying backpack sprayers across fields. To maximize efficiency and save money, drone-mounted sprayers deliver fine spray applications that can be targeted to specific areas. Countries currently have varying regulations regarding drone sprayers. Spray drift is not currently legal in Canada due to the need for further testing. Yamaha leases spray drone services, complete with licenced operators, instead of selling spray drones they manufacture, which is the case with some regulation proposals.
Farm management can also benefit greatly from drone security, which is a fast-growing industry separate from agriculture. When drones are used to monitor hard-to-reach areas of a farm, valuable time is saved and more frequent monitoring can be done. As part of farm operations, drone cameras can be used to monitor equipment usage and ensure smooth operations. Rather than employing more security personnel, drones can monitor fences and perimeters of more valuable crops like cannabis. Using drone cameras to find injured or missing farm animals in faraway grazing areas is also an exciting way to protect farm animals. Remote areas can now be monitored in a few minutes instead of taking hours to cover.
Machine learning is also used in another drone technology in development. To make drones more useful to smaller farmers in developing nations, Artificial Intelligence (AI) must be improved. In large monoculture fields like corn, drones are more effective at monitoring well-known crops like corn. At the moment, drone monitoring programs have a hard time recognizing areas with a variety of crops, less well-known produce, and crops that look similar throughout their growth stages, so they are less effective at monitoring crop health and growth. There is still a lot of work to be done on training AI systems to recognize less common crops and diverse planting patterns.
New research out of Australia is also creating exciting possibilities for drones in agriculture. It is imperative to develop more efficient irrigation solutions as climate change impacts drought conditions. In addition to soil health information, drones can also measure moisture levels by using microwave sensing technology. A field can thus be watered most efficiently to save resources.