Drones have revolutionized the world and the field of agriculture is most certainly included. When most of us think of drones, we think of action movies or stealthy military models. Some of us think of flying a personal drone in the park. So, what kind of applications do they have in the field of agriculture? Can these little flying robots really make a difference? Today we are going to discuss a little about the recent history of drones in agriculture, what kind of changes we can expect, and a little about current agricultural drones so that you can get an idea of their specifications and what exactly they can do (and in some cases, are doing) for farmers today. Let’s start with a little history!
A little History on agriculture drones
While drones have been enjoying commercial use since the early 1980’s, applications for agriculture would not come until a bit later. The first farmer in the United States to take advantage of drone technology is Robert Blair, an Idaho farmer who employed a UAS (unmanned air system) in 2006 with the specific goal of improving the yield of his crops.
While Blair admits that things were very ‘hit and miss’ in the beginning, he also tell us that employing drones certainly has its advantages. For one thing, you can save water and crops. Drones which are routinely deployed during the growing season can collect important data that let you know when certain crops might not be getting enough water, allowing management to remediate the situation while saving the yield in the process.
There are a number of reasons why Blair is on to something with his drones and since then many more farmers have started adding this technology to their own farms with great success. So why is it such a slow process? You would think that every farmer would want a drone or two in their growing arsenal. The first hurdle was a very practical one, as it turns out.
Earlier drones (and some drones of today) don’t exactly come cheap
Farming can be profitable but in a lot of cases, only marginally so. On many farms it is almost a labor of love. Generations of families have lived and farmed on a particular plot but living comfortably generally requires a wary ‘eye on the purse-strings’. In 2012, for instance, if you wanted to get a fixed-wing drone, capable of flying in a ‘mid-range’ capacity and also possessing a high definition camera then you were looking at spending 10 – 30 thousand dollars. That’s a lot of lettuce, if you’ll forgive the farming pun. While there are indeed advantages, cost had to come down for this sort of solution to become something practical. Thankfully, the popularity of drones has helped to make a lot of high end models available at a fraction of the cost. Yes, there are some ‘agriculture specific’ drones out there, but you can still do a lot of useful things with a little tinkering and some lower-end models. This has opened up a lot of avenues of opportunity for incorporating the technology into the farming industry and some of the uses are nothing short of amazing.
How a drone can help around the farm
If you are wondering what exactly you can do with a flying robot where crops are concerned then this is your lucky day. There are actually quite a few fantastic applications that drones are well-suited for that can improve productivity and pay for the drones themselves many times over.
Providing seasonal views of the crops
Blair’s usage of his drones by collecting data for the growing cycles is a very fine application of the technology. It allows for spotting problems early and ti also gives a farmer a way to account for any changes in the expected yield. Weather issues, animals, blights… all of these things can be accounted for and since they can also be spotted early, accountability and profitability can both rise accordingly. Comparison data from growing years in succession can also help to identify trends, such as successively lower yields, that might have been harder to account for without so much data to show it conclusively.
The drones can simply see more than an unaided farmer can. Especially when you factor in those fancy cameras.
Drone cameras are a huge advantage
As any good magician can prove (often smugly and right in your face), the eyes can miss quite a lot. Not so much with ‘electric eyes’, however. For instance, think about thermal imaging. Thermal imaging
“Thermal imaging cameras can paint a very different picture”
cameras can paint a very different picture of your crops than a standard picture could provide. Drones with thermal, multispectral, and hyperspectral cameras can show you at a glance which parts of a field are going to need to be watered. Further, you can also gather data that can be applied to a standard known as the NDVI, or ‘Normalized Difference Vegetation Index and it is truly a game changer.
NDVI – Normalized Difference Vegetation Index
While analysis of a field from an eye-in-the-sky is not completely new (we’ve done it from satellites, after all), with drones it is now a much more accessible technology and farmers can take advantage by consulting a vegetation index. The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index is one of the more well-known indexes that may be consulted and it is an excellent resource. Using Near Infrared Reflections (NIR) technology and Red bands the index is able to accurately calculate weed and other plants biomass and density. While walkthroughs are still recommended, NDVI can cut out a lot of work when you have a lot of land to cover.
Utilizing special software, multiple photos can be taken across large plots of land and combined in order to create a single, overhead view of a property. With the resolution available today, these overhead maps can provide a wealth of data at a glance for farmers who are managing enormous amount of crops.
Agricultural drones have the capability of calculating their distance from the ground and spraying exactly the right amounts of fluids in order to distribute them quickly and efficiently. In fact, it is estimated that drones can only do this more quickly than humans but that their accuracy also greatly reduces the chances of chemical seepage into the groundwater.
When the time comes for planting, there are great advantages to having a 3 dimensional, topographical map of the area at your disposal. Combined with soil sampling, this data can help to maximize the chances of a bountiful yield by employing technology from the get-go.
By utilizing drones in the actual planting process, costs may be lowered, in some cases up to 85%! The drones are able to facilitate the planting process by delivering their seedy payload in pods, packed with nutrients to help ensure that the crops grow quickly and efficiently. Auto planting is definitely a time saver and arguably the wave of farming future (not to mention it can enable a farmer to plant a larger area via drone and employ seasonal workers for harvesting!), so this is one aspect of agricultural drones that gets a lot of attention.
Best Drones for Agriculture
There are many drones out there which are great for agriculture and we decided to compile a few for you to take a look at, so that you can get a better idea of what is already out there. Often standard drones can be ‘re-outfitted’ as well to run software that can still make them an asset, so if you don’t see any here that tickle your fancy or if the price range seems prohibited it is definitely worth considering converting one on your own. These days, that kind of customization instruction is just floating out on YouTube waiting for you, so if you don’t want something pre-made then you should definitely keep that in mind. Without further ado, here are some examples for you to check out.
SenseFLY eBee SQ
The SenseFLY eBee SQ is an amazing fixed-wing drone that can fly over hundreds of acreas in one flight session, collecting all kinds of data that a farmer can put to good use. While it can get standard RGB images, it also has 4 multispectral channels that help to provide you with NVDI index information for plantings, finding out the density of weeds, and more! Their Flight Data Manager software helps you plan the most efficient routes for your drone and it has a controlling range of almost 5 miles. These models are expensive, starting around $13,000 and going up from there, depending on the features selected. That said, if this model seems a bit much to start with then DJI has a nice option to consider that is slower, but definitely gets the job done.
DJI Smarter Farming Package
Starting around $8300 U.S.D., the DJI Smarter Farming Package is a great investment for moving up to the next generation of farming. Their Matrice 100 Flying Platform comes with two sensors, enabling for visible spectrum and NVDI, due to the incorporation of a multispectral camera as part of the build. The package also comes with their Infield software for analyzing the collected data as well as a carrying case, their mobile app, extra batteries, and a 1 year subscription to Datamapper to help to increase the usage of the product. This is a good way to get started adding technology to a farm and well worth taking a peek!
Sentera Omni AG
Starting at around $16,995, the Sentera Omni AG is a quadcopter that brings a lot of options to the table. Incorporating 4k video, it also has NIR (near infrared) imaging that may be utilized with the NDVI index. The gimbaled sensor means that the camera can move and helps to make this drone much more efficient for when it comes to taking a swift inventory of the lay of the land. The unit comes with their AGFile software, which features a ‘quicktile’ option for helping to quickly rate the health of the land and crops that have been surveyed with the drone. We should note, that this is built on the DJI M100 model, and while it is capable of more payloads than the standard M100 if the cost seems a bit prohibitive or you are just getting started, the DJI Smarter Farming Package might just be the way to go. However, if you are a veteran user of drones in agriculture, the Sentera is definitely worth consideration and you will really like their software!
PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package
One last ‘starter’ drone package to consider is the PrecisionHawk Crop Scouting Package. They allow you to make selections so that you can obtain a fixed-wing or a quadcopter drone and add the features that you need or simply desire. Add-on sensors such as LIDAR, Thermal Imaging, 5-band, and more may be selected to increase functionality, and their Precision Analytics software can produce 2 and 3 dimensional images in order to make your data not only concise, but easier and more pleasant to ‘read’. If you are looking for something that is a little less ‘prepackaged’ that can be upgraded as you go, then PrecisionHawk is well worth the look. Depending on what you select, packages can be built up from as low as $2000 to start, so check them out if you are considering a drone and want a little more say in what comes with it.
Some final words
In today’s article we have talked about the current uses of drones in Agriculture. As you can see, the applications for this technology are many and very, very useful. If you are a farmer considering taking the leap into this technology, be sure to check out some of the drones which we have listed and do a little research on your own. With your own ‘eye in the sky’ you are sure to increase the efficiency and profitability of those growth cycles. Count on it!
Postscapes; “Agriculture Drones: A Complete guide to companies”
MIT Technology Review; “6 ways drones are revolutionizing Agriculture”
Inside Unmanned Systems; “How Will Drones Change Agriculture?”
Future Farming; ‘Beginners Guide to Agricultural Drones”