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Benefits of Drone Technology in Agriculture

With the onset of drones in 2016 becoming more popular in industries like agriculture, pilots and farmers are innovating beneficial ways to use drones to monitor plant health, spray crops with fertilizer and pesticides, and seed fields.

The world is in an era where resources are becoming finite. For farmers and agricultural operations to combat these challenges, efficiency every step of the way is necessary.

Drones are a tool of choice for the agricultural industry to overcome the challenges of feeding a growing population while conserving resources.

This article will cover these new innovations in the industry and how it benefits farmers, drone pilots, and the agricultural industry as a whole. 

Plant health mapping

To begin, we will cover how drones are used to monitor plant health. This use of drones in agriculture is one of the most accessible forms.

To monitor plant health, pilots will utilize a drone capable of sensing and taking images on the RGB spectrum of light, near-infrared, or multispectral, and pair this drone with a flight app of choice.

Some of these apps include:

Drone Deploy

This software offers an Agriculture Package that is much more affordable than their other packages.

This package acts as a flight planning and executing app, allowing you to execute automated flights that you have designed based on the area you want mapped.

You are then able to process the data from the flight to visualize plant health.

Pix 4D 

Similar to Drone Deploy, Pix 4D offers an agriculture mapping package.

This package allows for automated flight planning and execution as well as data processing to view the plant health map. 

There are many other alternatives to these two. However, these apps are popular in the mapping community for their user-friendly interface and cloud-based processing, as well as accuracy.

Other apps and software similar to these are Litchi, WebODM, and Dronelink, among others.

» MORE: Litchi for DJI Drones (A Complete Guide)

Once the pilot has planned his automated flight, he will execute it. During the flight, the drone will fly over the field in a grid formation, taking hundreds to thousands of images.

The pilot will take these images and put them in a mapping engine such as the software and apps listed above to create an orthomosaic.

An orthomosaic is a combination of images, usually containing metadata such as geographic location, RGB reflectivity, and elevation of the surface of the ground in relation to the camera.

Combining these images creates one high-resolution image. This orthomosaic will yield the plant health map.

Shown below are several examples of what a plant health map might look like for tracking private estate plant health, plant health in forestry, and plant health in farming.

Shown below is a field of healthy crops, with a line of crops down the middle that are experiencing a lack of water due to sitting at the highest elevation of the field.

Knowing this region has a lack of water will allow farmers to allocate sprinkler systems to irrigate the area at risk.

Example of Plant Health Map via Drone Mapping

While monitoring plant health is useful to get a read on the health of your plants, the data can be used to locate deficiencies in soil nutrients.

Lack of soil nutrition is a major issue facing the world today. Farming the same fields year after year depletes the soil of its nutrients.

Since farmers learned of this, a method of alternating fields has become common. However, this method is not foolproof.

Areas of the field may contain fewer nutrients than others, which would produce less healthy crops. These stressed crops are visible on plant health maps by their overly red appearance.

Farmers will be able to locate the area of soil deficiency and add the nutrients into the soil.

Another factor causing an overly red area on a plant health map is that of a blight. This is a serious issue and, if left unchecked, can ruin a crop in its entirety.

Blights are diseases that infect and spread throughout crops and other plants.

The serious nature of these diseases cannot be understated, as the Chestnut Blight of 1904 wiped out millions of trees in a span of only a few years.

Trees are hardy plant species. Seasonal crops are much more vulnerable to these blights. Catching these blights before it’s too late is crucial to the success of a healthy harvest.

The benefit of plant health mapping with drones is that a field can be mapped and examined on a regular basis, allowing farmers and other individuals in the agricultural industry to stop a blight in its tracks.

Essentially, every drone produced today is capable of executing these flights and comes with the sensors built in to gather the data.

However, the following uses of drones in the industry have somewhat of a barrier to entry. 

Spraying drones

Spraying fertilizer and pesticides has been done by lightweight planes for over half a century.  Using drones as an alternative to lightweight planes is a cost-effective solution to spraying fertilizer and pesticides.

Planes require fuel (an expensive resource currently), years of experience, and more insurance than drones. Flying low to the ground is also a safety concern, so pilots tend to charge much more.

Drones used for spraying pesticides and fertilizer tend to be very large. Shown below is an example of an agricultural spraying drone.

Many agricultural drones are octocopters, hexacopters, and sometimes, quadcopters.

The difference between these models is the payload capacity. The similarity between all of them is that the tank is placed or inserted in the drone’s center of balance. 

These tanks vary in size. They usually weigh at least 17 pounds but can sometimes be much heavier.

Having a larger payload as the tank means the drone itself will have to be larger, hence the extra propellers beyond a quadcopter.

At a certain weight, the drone moves from being a standard UAV to a different class of vehicle.

The weight limit, including the payload, has to be below 55 pounds before it is classified as a traditional aircraft as opposed to a standard UAV.

This is usually avoided by keeping payloads under a limit. Smaller agricultural drones can be relatively inexpensive, starting at around $1,000 USD.

Shown here is an inexpensive agricultural spraying drone coming in at about $1,200 USD.

It is important to have the ability to conduct automated flights, similar to mapping a field for plant health. Using an automated flight for spraying pesticides and fertilizer ensures that no area will be left unsprayed or overlooked.

While the process can take longer than the traditional method of spraying with a lightweight crop duster plane, using a drone is a safer and more affordable method of fertilizing and spraying pesticides on crops.

It is common for agricultural drones to be equipped with a live feed camera, not meant for filming but for spraying and fertilizing as well as seeding certain areas when you were not able to operate based on the automated flight plan.

For instance, perhaps you have an orchard and need to get in the crevices of the tree as opposed to the straightforward task of spraying a  field of soybeans. You’ll be able to use the live feed camera to view where you are spraying. 

Seeding drones

The next use case for drones in agriculture is that of seeding fields. Similar to drones being used for spraying pesticides and fertilizer, the payload will be heavy.

However, you’ll get more out of the payload of seeds than you will fertilizer and pesticide payloads.

Some seeding machines attached to drones use a method of shooting the seeds out in a circular formation.

Here is a video demonstrating a use case for this beneficial technology using drones.

Again, using drones in agriculture is generally a cheaper and more affordable method than using traditional manned aircraft. This is true as well for seeding crops.

As opposed to driving a large tractor and burning fuel, the drone is a lightweight and energy-efficient method of seeding a field.

There are many use cases where it makes sense to use drones for seeding fields. Not only is it energy efficient, but it is agile and adaptive compared to a tractor.

For instance, flat terrain may be fine for a tractor to traverse. Hilly or even mountainous terrain may pose challenges and even safety concerns to using a tractor.

While it’s possible to use human labor to navigate these challenges, a drone can sense terrain underneath and rise and descend based on the elevation changes.

No obstacles on the ground can stop a drone from completing its task, as long as there aren’t any trees. However, trees can be sensed and avoided since many drones contain obstacle avoidance technology. 

How drones have and will continue to change agriculture

Overall, the applications of drones in agriculture are becoming more popular as drones become more efficient.

Flying agriculture drone with copy space

With the onset of automated machines carrying out what was once human labor, drones will become a mainstay solution to most analytical and aerial-based farming activities. 

It’s likely that farmers in the near future will keep a Part 107 pilot in employment on the farm, orchard, or nursery if the operation is large enough.

On the other hand, Part 107 pilots will have the opportunity to use their skills and certification to make money in the agricultural business for multiple farmers who may have smaller operations.

As fertilizer and pesticides become more expensive, accurate placement of fertilizer and pesticides will be necessary.

The world is experiencing a shortage of these resources right now, so the conservation of fertilizer and pesticides will become a priority.

Traditional planes, once filled with large tanks of fertilizer and pesticides, will likely be phased out due to low accuracy.  

As the market for organic products becomes larger, larger-scale farms will need to make sure the crops are growing in a healthy way since certain pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO products will not be used.

Plant health analysis has and will continue to become necessary and mainstream in the industry.

Large and small-scale operations alike may turn to drones to seed their fields as affordability plays a factor in every industry.

Feeding the world is no simple task, and drones will play their part as a beneficial solution to the challenges that farmers face as demand increases.