Chances are, you already know drones are amazing. After all, this is something DroneLife readers just understand. But if you’re anything like me, you’re still regularly blown away when you learn about the latest developments in commercial drone technology. The possibilities seem endless.
The farm drone isn’t exactly a new idea, I know. But what I’ve been marveling at these days is the constantly expanding range of farm drone applications, particularly as they relate to “smart farming” — which is a bit of a new idea. Based on new research, by 2050, our world’s population is supposed to be so much greater that our current food production will have to increase by 70% from what it is now to feed everyone. But there’s an even trickier part: Scientists estimate there will be much higher demand for water and a lot less arable land available.
That means achieving a 70% increase will require a highly technical analysis of hard-core agricultural data, the development of technology capable of collecting that data and, finally, using the information to speed production while maintaining quality standards. Or, to put it another way, that increase will require some serious smart farming. And the need for such precision is making drones an enormous part of our agricultural future. Read on to find out how!
Smarter Machines for Smarter Farms
Sometimes called “precision agriculture,” smart farming is based on the incorporation of advanced technology in the management of crops and livestock to increase output without compromising quality — a tall order that’ll be tough to achieve from a financial perspective in the long term. The need to maintain that balance between cost and quality has made drones particularly attractive to smart farming tech developers. Drones are relatively affordable and don’t require a whole lot of training to pilot. Plus, drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are strong enough to carry the kinds of remote sensing technology that, in the past, required satellite connectivity or the use of full-size, manned aircraft.
Here are just a few of the awesome ways drones are set to help us meet the challenges of the future:
Keeping Watch. Environmental changes happen very quickly, which can make it tough for farmers to monitor large fields. And the same goes for livestock; when herds are very large, keeping an eye on wanderers can be difficult without a birds-eye view. As it turns out, drones make awesome flying baby-sitters. Equipped with surveillance technology, drones can fly high and fast, creating time-series animations that let farmers keep up with crop inefficiencies and lost or hurt livestock in real time.
Spraying That’s Better in Every Way. No one likes the idea of chemical spraying, but, for the time being, it’s a necessary part of large-scale agriculture. Fortunately, smart farming drones are helping reduce its environmental impact. These specialized UAVs are equipped with sprayers, but also with various kinds of technology, like ultrasonic echoing devices and lasers, which can measure distance with extreme precision. The result is a massive reduction in overall spray and a much lower chemical level reaching the groundwater. And, of course, being that they’re drones, they can complete a spraying job about five-times faster than old-school methods.
Crop Planting Optimized for Efficiency. A new drone-based planting system recently reported on by MIT is probably my favorite of the latest smart farming drone applications. Not only does the method have the potential to decrease planting costs by close to 85%, it accomplishes this by launching specialized seed- and nutrient-filled pods into the soil below (so very sci-fi). Also, many farmers are now using drones fitted with 3-D mapping equipment capable of going out and bringing back soil and field analysis data to streamline planning and planting patterns and to help optimize field irrigation and soil nitrogen levels throughout the crop cycle.
Making the Most of Irrigation. As I mentioned above, scientists say that water shortages are sure to throw a monkey wrench in our agricultural future. But smart farming has a plan, and it involves — you guessed it — drones. These high-tech high flyers are fitted with remote sensing equipment, such as hyperspectral, multispectral, or thermal sensing systems, that allow them to identify the driest sections of field so water resources can be allocated much more economically — more water for the dry areas and less for the wetter ones.
Keeping Things Super Healthy. Today, some farming drones operate like little, flying triage nurses, using visible and near-infrared light sensors and surveillance technology to monitor the health of crops and livestock. While flying overhead, the field drones are able to collect enough detailed information to calculate a crop’s vegetation index. They do this by detecting minute differences in a crop’s reflected NIR and green light. From there, the tech can develop diagnostic multispectral images.
Livestock surveillance drones fly over, in and around, herds to collect all kinds of information — illnesses, pregnancies, and injuries. Then, those same drones are able to recognize and monitor animals in need of special “follow-up care.” Many farmers are also using livestock surveillance drones to monitor entire herd health cycles.