One of our basic needs is food— we get the essential nutrition and energy to live a normal and healthy life from eating. Our diets mainly consist of meats and produce, which are sourced from farmers and raisers.
As we continue to experience the effects of climate change, we also realize that food supply is deeply connected to it. Water shortage as well as frequent weather disturbances such as hurricanes and typhoons heavily affect the growth and harvest of produce and livestock. This is why businesses in all industries, not just in the agriculture sector, push for more innovative and sustainable methods of doing business to drive positive impact to the environment.
In agriculture, technology has always been a partner in increasing productivity, efficiency, and profitability in farms. Technological advances such as machines, tractors, and greenhouses have helped farmers increase their production and minimise waste in farms.
However, as technology further advances as the years pass, agriculture has also found ways to incorporate it in its processes. Agriculture technology or AgTech has transformed the way agriculture businesses operate. Today, farmers can use high resolution imagery as well as ground heat mapping to track the growth of produce and livestock, ensuring maximum production and efficiency.
Another application of AgTech is using drones. Gone are the days when these handy pieces of equipment are only used in the military. Today, many industries including agriculture use drones for various reasons, making it a good investment.
Drones have become a powerful tool in agriculture. The equipment has been used by farmers to monitor crops and livestock, offering more expansive and higher resolution imagery and allowing more detailed data gathering to achieve the best possible yields. Many countries, particularly Nigeria, have also used drone technology in designing, planning, and constructing rice irrigation systems.
The agricultural drone market is expected to grow to $4.8 billion in 2024 according to reports. This can be highly associated with more and more large-scale farms applying its use in their operations. As more advanced drone models such as the DJI Matrice 30T are released, we can expect more farms to use it to their advantage to achieve a sizeable increase in their profit margins.
Drones have been used as a part of a system generally referred to as precision agriculture. The information gathered by drones on farms have been to make better informed agronomic decisions by both farmers and business owners. For example, drones can collect data by recording fields to help farmers plan their crops and treatments to achieve the best possible yields.
Through drones, farmers can monitor crop and livestock conditions for any potential problems, allowing for a more optimised field management. Depending on the use of the drone, farmers can attach accessories such as sprays and even buckets on the equipment to allow data gathering.
Below are the uses of drones in agriculture.
Drones usually have camera lenses for imagery which has been successful in monitoring plant health. These equipment have special imaging called Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) which allows for detailed and coloured information to indicate plant health. Through the NDVI, farmers can monitor crops as they grow, alerting them of any issues with the plants and allowing them to address the issues as soon as possible.
Drones can also be used for satellite imaging to monitor plant health. Many farmers use satellite imagery in monitoring crop growth, density, as well as colouration, albeit costly and not as effective as closer drone imaging due to cloud cover and poor light conditions.
When drone imaging is used, farmers can get an accurate image location of the crops. This allows them to identify any gaps in crops that can still be filled with plants as well as detect any crop disease or pests that will need treatment right away.
Soil condition is one of the most important aspects of farming. Farmers cannot grow crops if the soil isn’t healthy as it can produce crops unfit for sale. This is why farmers use drone field monitoring to monitor the health of the soil as well as the condition of the fields.
With drones, farmers can get accurate field mapping including information on elevation to identify irregularities in the field. This information is useful as it can help determine drainage patterns. It also allows farmers to identify dry and wet spots in the field for efficient watering techniques.
Some agricultural drones also have enhanced sensors that can be used to monitor the nitrogen levels in the soil. With this, farmers can precisely apply fertilizers, eliminate any poor growing spots for crops, and improve soil health in the long run.
Sprays can be attached to drones for spray treatment. In fact, using drones for spray treatments is already widespread in Asian countries such as South Korea.
Using drones in spray treatments allows for better coverage, as drones can reach and navigate very hard to reach areas such as steep fields at high elevations. This saves workers time and effort as they don’t have to navigate such elevations which can also be dangerous.
However, it’s important to note that drone sprayers have varying regulations between countries. For example, the drone sprayers are still considered illegal in Canada as more research is needed to understand the impact of spray drifts in the environment.
Newer technologies in agricultural drones allow planting seeds across fields. Currently, forestry industries utilize automated drone seeders for planting. However, this can spread to other agricultural industries as time goes on.
Drones used for seeding can cover a wider area, including spots that are hard to reach. This eliminates the risk of endangering farmers’ lives as well as increasing efficiency. This is because drones can plant more seeds compared to their human counterparts.
Pollination is also an important aspect of farming as it causes the development of produce. It’s also a recent development in the use of drones in agriculture.
Some researchers in the Netherlands and Japan are developing ways to use drones in pollinating plants without harming them. If successful, the next step is the creation of pollinating drones that can work without instruction from operators.
With their camera lenses, farmers have used drones for security in their farm management. With drones, farmers can monitor all areas of the field without the need to actually scour the entire field. Drone cameras provide an overview of daily farm operations, ensuring all processes are running and all equipment is located. These can also be used by livestock raisers to locate farm animals that have been missing, injured, or grazing in far off areas.
Drones used in farm security reduces the need to hire more security personnel. Through drones, farmers can monitor the entirety of the farm in just a matter of minutes, instead of hours of walking.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have been applied to many industries, and agriculture isn’t an exception.
Drones equipped with AI capabilities can effectively monitor crops planted in large monocultural patterns such as corn. Through AI monitoring programs in drones, farmers can recognize areas with increased crop diversity, less well-known produce, and crops with similar features throughout growth stages. This will allow farmers to effectively plan their crops as well as their planting patterns.
However, it’s important to note that incorporating AI and machine learning in drones is still in the development stage. This means that more work is needed to train AI systems in drones to recognize crops that are less common as well as identify more diverse patterns in planting.
Water shortage is a serious issue when it comes to agriculture. Without water and irrigation, crops can’t grow and farmers can’t sell produce.
This is why research in Australia about drone use as irrigation tools is opening new solutions to farmers. Drones can use microwave sensing to capture accurate information on soil health including moisture levels. This will allow farmers to distribute water in the field efficiently, further conserving water resources.
Farmers and agronomists rely on accurate annual yield estimations to make decisions and manage expectations. With the help of drones, they can gather detailed information, allowing them to quickly and efficiently create on-demand insights which can help them in decision making.
Although it may seem that agricultural drones are an expensive investment, it can offer benefits to farmers in the long run. Drones technology can provide actionable insights which can be realized in as little as one farming season.
As far as labour is concerned, agricultural drones will not eliminate the need for personnel. Instead, it offers an alternative if workers are unavailable or if farmers can’t afford to hire more personnel.
So, are agricultural drones good investments? Yes, they are. They offer solutions to existing and potential problems in the field without having to spend more financial resources to address them.