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Drones in Precision Agriculture and Crop Management editorial staff editorial staff

Drones are the next technology to provide innovative solutions to the agriculture industry.

  • Drones have been used for agriculture since 2006. New technologies have improved precision agriculture and crop management.
  • Drones take images from aerial viewpoints, map cropping areas, and can be used for functions like spraying.
  • Drone fly times usually max out at 40 minutes, but they can cover a large expanse of land in that time.

Smartphones were once thought of as a luxury, but as the technology evolved, prices fell, and now almost everyone carries a smartphone. When tractors were first constructed, they were also considered luxuries, yet every farmer has at least one tractor in their fields these days. Drones – unmanned air vehicles – are the next innovative tech solution in line for the agriculture industry.

What is an agricultural drone?

An agricultural drone is developed specifically to make improvements to benefit the farming industry. It has technology to provide feedback to farmers on ways to better manage their operations.

Agricultural drones expand upon the functions of traditional drones. For instance, they can be outfitted with sprayers and used as a tool to treat crops.  

To the untrained eye, a drone soaring over the landscape may look like an amateur hobby, but drones have already started helping in many different fields, including delivery, mapping, surveying, and aerial inspections as well as agriculture. Drones offer farmers a cheaper method for gathering data in real time and a broad range of tools.

There is a constantly expanding range of farming applications for drones, including crop monitoring, spraying, and soil and field analysis. Because drones are on demand and fly cheaply at lower altitudes, they can cover a large field and get detailed images of crops in a short time. For the first time in generations, technological innovations are enabling farmers to make huge improvements in their performance.

Benefits of agricultural drones

Farmers may still use shovels on a daily basis, but their lives changed forever when the first tractor was constructed, and drones are the next big evolution of farming technology. Drones can assist agriculture with a few different types of detailed field views. Seeing a plant from the air in real time can reveal irrigation problems, soil levels and fungal infestations that wouldn't be obvious at human eye level. There are a few different cameras that can be used with drones to provide multispectral images, capturing footage from the infrared and visual spectrum combined. The combined view highlights differences between healthy and unhealthy plants that the naked eye can't see. Drones can survey a field every day of the year to create a series of images that reveal sudden changes, trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.

Using a drone that can carry multiple cameras, farmers are able to get a detailed view of the field in multiple channels in a short time. Currently, the best camera option for analyzing crop health is the NDVI camera. NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) is a metric for the health of crops. NDVI cameras capture data in near-infrared and provide farmers an accurate measurement for crop health. Simply explained, chlorophyll is the energy-making part of a plant, and when near-infrared light hits the leaves of crops, some of the infrared is reflected back into the atmosphere because of the chlorophyll. If the plant is unhealthy, the amount of chlorophyll produced decreases, and less infrared is reflected. Drones equipped with NDVI cameras capture the reflected infrared with precise imagery that allows farmers to pinpoint areas of stress that require further investigation on foot. By constantly monitoring crops, farmers can lower their nitrogen, pesticides and water usage, allowing them to spend less and improve their crop yields.

How long have drones been used in agriculture?

According to a company profile on Virgin's website, the first farmer to use a drone or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for precision agriculture purposes was Idaho's Robert Blair in 2006. The data he collected gave him feedback on yield amounts, damaged crops, high pest areas and wildlife control. Although drones have been used in agriculture for close to 15 years, most modern drone technology has been developed in the past five years.   

What you need to know about drones in agriculture

Drones built for agriculture have a flight time of 35-40 minutes. Fixed-wing drones are best suited for surveillance of large open spaces because they can spend much more time in the air. Quadcopter drones are guided by GPS, so they are more precise and stable in the air. Quadcopters can be set to keep their height constant at all times for precision, and you can even record the paths in a field to let the drone complete its flight autonomously.

All around the world, various small and midsize precision agricultural solution providers are focused on developing and introducing drones that helps farmers enhance their utilization of resources. There are smart drones on the market with sensors for collision avoidance that use GPS for stabilization and carry NDVI and normal cameras.

Diseases can spread very quickly in a field, and farmers must monitor large fields constantly. By taking to the skies, farmers will be able to spend less time and money as well as increase yield opportunities. With the improvements in precision and accuracy of GPS technology over the years, soon drones will be able to operate more precisely and safely within centimeters rather than meters.

Considering that there will be 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, feeding the whole world will be a critical challenge for the next generations. Precision agriculture will provide real value to farmers on a daily basis by maximizing yield capacity. With planning and strategy-based real-time field analyses, farmers of the future will have a better tool to fight diseases and manage their fields.

Image Credit: StockSeller_ukr / Getty Images editorial staff editorial staff Member
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