Drones In Agriculture

Drones In Agriculture

July 13, 2016

Farms around the world could soon see drones become as commonly used on their fields as tractors.  Drone usage in the agriculture sector is a budding industry, providing farmers with a more affordable way to increase profits and production while also decreasing their environmental impact. 

With the multispectral images and data collected from a drone, operators can attain a bird's eye view of their crops and livestock. The information can then be used to create comprehensive action plans and solutions in order to boost yields and profits. Drone usage in the agriculture industry can assist farmers and operators in the monitoring of crop conditions, soil quality, irrigation levels, and more. As the agriculture industry embraces the technology increasingly, we could soon see drones quickly become farmers' best friend.

INSPECTIONS FROM THE AIR

Drones today are being used in the agriculture industry as a tool that can provide precise data previously unattainable by way of traditional crop scouting methods. Previously, crop scouting on farms small and large depended on either on-foot field scouting, manned aircraft, or satellite imagery.

According to John Frost president of AerHyve Aerial Technologies, a company specializing in the capturing and analyzation of data from UAV's, farmers or professional crop scouts would traditionally walk in a W pattern through fields to get a sample of the conditions of their crops. "This was the most traditional and common way, but now things are starting to shift," said Frost.

With the ability to see crops from the air, drones can quickly assess and reveal patterns that can expose everything from irrigation problems, to soil variations, and fungal infestations not apparent at eye level. "Agricultural drones are becoming a tool like any other consumer device, and we're starting to talk about the potential of what we can do with them," said Frost. 

EARLY DETECTION AND COLLECTING INFORMATION

Drones are gaining momentum in the agriculture sector thanks to their ability to help farmers track and monitor crops to detect problems before they arise. Multispectral or infrared cameras can be used in a number of ways to help farmers better understand the condition of their crops. Airborne cameras can be used to capture multispectral images to analyze data from the infrared and visual spectrum. The combined data can then create a view of the crops that highlights the differences between healthy or distressed plants unseen to the naked eye. By using multispectral cameras and data analysis software that can analyze wavelengths and chlorophyll levels, researchers can identify problems in crops to prevent crop failure.

When it comes to using drones to detect plant failure, it is all about the way the information is processed, said Frost. "Plants reflect and absorb light differently under different conditions. A multispectral or infrared camera can tell if a plant is stressed due to water shortage or pests before you or I can see it." With these methods, farmers can attain invaluable information for any small or large scale farm and detect potential plant stress far in advance, ultimately saving yields and expenses. "By using this technology one can detect plant stress 10 days before the plant even display the stress. It is a tremendous advantage," said Frost.

COST AND TIME ADVANTAGE

Not only do drones provide the benefit of collecting highly accurate data from the skies, they also hold the valuable advantage of time and cost efficiency. A drone inspection is much cheaper than traditional methods like on-ground field scouting, or paying thousands of dollars an hour for a manned aircraft inspection, said Frost. A drone can be purchased outright and save users large sums of money in the long run.

Not only are drones more cost effective, they also offer the benefit of saved time. With a drone, an operator can quickly analyze their crops from the air on their own time as they see fit. "Compared with satellite imagery and other methods, using a drone is much cheaper, and offers higher resolution, quality data. The images are unobstructed, cheaper to attain, and available anytime," said Frost.

REDUCE WASTE AND CREATE TIMELINES

A quick drone inspection can assist farmers in promptly identifying what types of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to use along with how much to use, based on data provided. Operators can reduce waste on things like water, seeds, and other chemicals. By choosing where to place fertilizer based on plant health, farmers can save on costs and boost their crop yields.

According to Frost, another large advantage of drone technology, is the ability to create orthomosaics or 2D and 3D timelines every hour, day, week, or month of the year to showcase changes in plant health, reveal potential problem areas, and find opportunities for better crop management.

CROP SPRAYING

The popularity of using drones as crop sprayers is growing quickly. Last year, DJI designed a drone named the DJI Agras MG-1. According to DJI, using a drone as a crop sprayer is 40 times more efficient than manual spraying. The Agras MG-1 is an octocopter that can spray crops and cover between seven and ten acres of land an hour. The tanks can also hold up to 10 liters of liquid.  

With drone technology the Agras MG-1 can scan the ground and maintain a perfect distance between crops to spray just the right amount of product. Another convenience is that a crop spraying drone can be flown automatically, or manually and is designed to be water resistant, is dust proof, and designed with anti-corrosive material.

PRECISIONHAWK AND DJI

As drone usage in the agriculture industry is beginning to take flight, PrecisionHawk and DJI have partnered to give the market an easy-to-use and cost-effective agriculture analytics solution by combining DJI's commercial drone hardware with PrecisionHawk's software platform called DataMapper.

The package comes with either DJI's customizable Matrice 100 or 600 drones, and PrecisionHawk's flight and analytics software already integrated. With either the Matrice 100 or 600, farmers can create flight plans using the DataMapper program, gather and transfer data to a Cloud in the field, and have the software autonomously analyze data collected to ultimately increase yields and identify crop stress.

The partnership gives consumers a user-friendly way to collect, manage, and monitor data while also providing the analysis algorithms built-in to perform analysis on any decision a farmer may need to make, such as estimating yields or identifying potential threats to plant health.

The DataMapper app also comes with the "Algorithm Marketplace." It is a user-friendly app store for drone information where users can run their data through automated systems. The systems cater to a wide variety of industries but for the agriculture sector in particular, they can identify areas of water and nitrogen intake, diagnose plant health, assess plant height and growth, conduct row-based plant counting, and quantify leaf and canopy cover.

FLYING FORWARD

Japan was one of the first countries to embrace drone technology in their own agricultural sector by their wide usage of crop spraying drones and now the rest of the world is starting to follow suit. According to Frost, the United States, China, and South America will be the next countries in line to focus their investments in drone technology for their own agricultural industries. 

As for where the technology is heading, totally autonomy is on the horizon. Drones could soon be completely automatic and need little to no human interference.  According to Frost, in the future we may soon see multiple drones working in tandem or even carrying out different jobs at the same time. Drones will be able to take-off, complete survey work, and land on pre-programmed cycle. Inductive charging may also be another advancement. A drone could soon be able to automatically land on a charging pad and recharge itself.

The agriculture industry is quickly recognizing the advantages of control, time efficiency, and affordability drones provide to ultimately help assist in boosting crop yields and profits. With all of the rapid advancements in drone technology being made, it is clear that the future of drones in the agriculture sector is just beginning to take-off.