Drones in Precision Agriculture and Crop Management

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: June 8, 2017
Photo credit: Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock

Drones have already started helping mankind in many different fields, such as delivery, mapping, surveying, aerial inspections and agriculture, farmers of the future will have a better tool to fight diseases, monitor the health of their crops and to manage their fields.

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 luxury yet every farmer has at least one tractor in their fields these days. In the following years, drones—unmanned air vehicles—will be the next technology in line to provide the agriculture industry with innovative solutions.

To the untrained eye, the sight of a drone soaring over the landscape may look like an amateur hobby, but drones have already started helping mankind in many different fields, such as delivery, mapping, surveying, aerial inspections and agriculture. Drones offer farmers a cheaper method for gathering data in real-time and a broad range of tools. Lately, there is a constantly expanding range of farm applications by drones, including crop monitoring, spraying, soil and field analysis. Because drones are on demand and fly cheaply at lower altitudes, they can cover a large field and get highly detailed images of crops in a short amount of time. For the first time in generations, technological innovations are enabling farmers to make huge improvements in their performance.

Farmers may still use a shovel on a daily basis but their lives changed forever when the first tractor was constructed, and drones are the next evolution of 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 and these cameras provide multispectral images, capturing footage from the infrared and visual spectrum combined. The combined view highlights differences between healthy and unhealthy plants in a way that can’t be seen by the naked eye. 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 analysing crop health is called the NDVI camera. NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) is a metric that indicates the health of crops. NDVI cameras capture data in near infrared and provide farmers with an accurate measurement for analysing crop health. Simply explained, chlorophyll is the energy-making part of a plant, and when near infrared 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 a precise imagery that allows farmers to pinpoint areas of stress that require further investigation on foot. By constantly monitoring crops, farmers are able to lower their nitrogen, pesticides and water usage, which gives them the opportunity to spend less and improve yields.

Drones built for agriculture have a flight time of up to 35-40 minutes and can cover more land in a single flight. 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 GPS-guided; therefore, 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 medium-sized precision agricultural solution providers are focused on developing and introducing drones that aid farmers in enhancing their resource utilisation. There are smart drones in the market today with sensors for collision avoidance that use GPS for stabilisation 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 the opportunity for more yields. 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 centimetres, compared to meters. Considering that by 2050 there will be 10 billion people on the planet, 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 maximising yield capacity, with planning and strategy-based real-time field analyses, farmers of the future will have a better tool to fight diseases and to manage their fields.

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