Increasingly common in nonmilitary applications like photography, home delivery, and recreation, drones are now figuring into solutions for the dire problem of producing enough food for the world’s growing population. The tiny, pilotless aircrafts, with aerial sensors and big data integrations, are a key aspect of the information and communications technology currently revolutionizing agriculture.
The need for so-called smart farming is great. According to a report from consultancy PwC, by 2050 the world’s population will have grown to nine billion, increasing agricultural consumption by 69% from 2010 levels. As a result, PwC forecasts that the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture will be $32.4 billion.
Monitoring Crops at Lower Cost
The major problem for farmers has been the vast areas of land under cultivation and the difficulty of monitoring crops planted there. But drone technology can help farmers overcome these crop monitoring challenges at a lower cost. “[D]rones can be integrated at every stage of the crop lifecycle, from soil analysis and seed planting to choosing the right moment for harvesting,” the PwC report said.
Unlike the drones that can be seen flying in suburban backyards, smart farming drones are equipped with specialized sensors enabling the collection of a vast amount of data about crop and soil condition. The drones’ multispectral cameras are capable of sensing green, red, and near infrared light bands, some which are invisible to the human eye. Once it’s been collected, smart computer applications analyze the data to provide details on soil quality, moisture, and other factors in crop planning.
Identifying Costly Diseases
Multispectral imaging allows farmers to identify crop-damaging pests as well as weeds and yield-limiting diseases like fungus. This information helps farmers optimize their use of pesticides, which can be sprayed by other drones with great precision, minimizing the contamination of ground water.
“A fast reaction is usually crucial, because it can save a whole orchard from dying,” according to the PwC analysis. “In addition, as soon as a sickness is spotted, a more precise remedy can be applied and monitored.”
Imaging also permits farmers to calculate the need for irrigation, which helps save water, and to make improvements to their farms like installing drainage systems.
Once an imaging drone has mapped the land, farmers will be able to use repurposed military drones to plant crops with far greater efficiency than that of the machine planting common in developed countries or the hand planting many developing nations still rely on. The drones deliver pods containing seeds and nutrients to specified locations by firing them into the ground below.
Planting Trees and Tracking Herds
A test conducted by BioCarbon Engineering, a British firm that uses drones to plant trees, showed an uptake rate of 75% for eucalyptus trees planted by drones, compared to just 8% when using airplanes to disperse dry seeds.
And replacing the cowboys of Western fame, drones have found further use in the management of animal herds. Drones can spot injured or stray animals over a vast area and direct help in the form of human assistance to the precise spot where the animal is located.
“The need to maintain [a] balance between cost and quality has made drones particularly attractive to smart farming tech developers,” said CropLife. In light of current agricultural challenges and those on the horizon, such techology may be arriving just in time.