Future of Drones on the Farm
Contributed Content from Brendon Bartholomew, President — Vector Aerial
When picturing a farm, the iconic image of a red and white barn, a little green tractor, and rolling fields of grain likely come to the minds of many. Most people don’t envision seeding robots, self-driving tractors, robotic harvesters, or automatic irrigation systems, and they certainly don’t expect to see drones circling overhead. However, we see drones mapping farms every day, and we know they are the future of agriculture.
The role of agricultural drones has evolved over the years. Initially, they were almost entirely focused on spraying. Drones delivering pesticides continue to improve, but those (or the units) involved in agricultural analytics have become a game changer.
Approximately six years ago, a couple of companies developed software using drones integrated with multi-spectral imagery to deliver detailed crop analysis. Their goal was to obtain data that would make farming more efficient, predictable, and sustainable. Over the years, that early software has matured, and the technology has advanced significantly.
The Importance of 3D Mapping
Prior to the advent of drones, the only way to obtain airborne imagery and information was from an airplane or helicopter. The use of aircraft is prohibitive for several reasons, not the least of which is cost.
Aerial 3D mapping has become a critical aspect of a drone’s job on the farm. When drones are paired with agriculture analytics programs, they are able to create high-definition maps. Sophisticated algorithms use those maps to count plants, discover signs of crop stress, and detect invasive weed species. Early detection of crop stress dramatically influences a farm’s overall yield.
In most cases, software enables a drone to fly over a farm and capture this data autonomously. As the drone soars over a field, it automatically takes pictures with onboard cameras and sensors. After returning, the software analyzes the information.
Benefits of Precision Spraying
Agricultural drones have been involved in spraying crops since their introduction to the farm, but thanks to 3D mapping, spraying has become far more precise. Drones may not be able to cover large areas as quickly, but they can deliver herbicides and pesticides exactly where they are needed. This makes drones perfect for spraying mountainous terrain, smaller farms with more densely-seeded crops, or weeds growing in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach.
After mapping a field and discovering weeds, drones spot-treat those areas rather than spraying the entire field. Precision spraying is not only better for the environment – as it limits exposure to harmful chemicals – it also saves money, time, and resources.
Drones are Increasing Productivity on the Farm
Drones are increasing productivity on modern farms without requiring additional labor. With just a little training, anyone can begin to operate one.
Most agricultural drone operations are done semi-autonomously and only require operators to provide a small amount of direction. Once the plan is transferred to the drone, the aircraft will fly the profile on its own. After the flight, the software produces a product that farm managers can analyze and use in their decision-making. This allows newer generations of farmers to utilize drones for laborious tasks that once required entire teams of manpower.
Predictions for the Future of Agricultural Drones
The planet’s growing population and dwindling resources present a dilemma. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization predicts that the global population will reach approximately ten billion people by 2050. In order to meet this projected climb in population, food production will need to increase by almost 70 percent in developed nations, and 100 percent in the developing world. Furthermore, The Population Institute estimates that this increased food production will coincide with rising energy prices, groundwater depletion, loss of farmland due to urbanization, and potential flooding and droughts caused by climate change.
Finding solutions that will feed the growing population will require us to grow crops more efficiently than ever, and drones will be a major part of that solution. According to Global Market Insights, the agricultural drone market is projected to expand to a $1 billion industry, shipping over 200,000 units before 2024.
In the coming years, drones will provide more in-depth data on crop conditions and become increasingly autonomous. Farmers will be able to receive constant, up-to-date information on their crops and use that data to drive their decisions at speeds that, today, are unheard of.
Advances in precision farming must continue if we hope to feed the human race throughout the coming decades. Drones already allow farmers to gather vast amounts of data and increase their harvests, but we have only begun to tap into their full potential.
About Brendon Bartholomew
Brendon Bartholomew is the president of Vector Aerial. He has more than 20 years of United States Air Force Special Operations and Air Mobility experience flying multiple platforms, leading several organizations, multiple aspects of strategic planning, strategic communications, budget development, research and development, and legislative affairs.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF VECTOR AERIAL