The general public concept of a drone is a sinister military aircraft that will drop a payload of death onto unsuspecting military targets, whether the target is a person or a thing. Hobbyists have a different view of drones, as does Amazon.com.
But there are far more practical uses for drones that are beneficial and productive to society-at-large. Among those alternative uses is in the area of agriculture. With an increasing global population, the need to continue to feed the people of the world continues to be a challenge. Whether in Brazil, Australia, or the United States, the management of the available resources and maximizing potential crop yields can be greatly assisted through the use of drones through “precision agriculture.”
In order for the farmer to maximize the use of the technology, they first must deal with government regulations. Though many of the issues are still being worked on, the FAA has created some guidelines for commercial and public use:
- A maximum ceiling of 500 feet
- A demonstrated need for using a drone
- Requires a pilot license for operation
This third requirement can get expensive, which is currently a sore point for farmers. What the drone can be used for is an agricultural environment is of particular interest.
Once commercial businesses get a clearly defined set of rules to work with, technology will most definitely develop devices that will make drones even more useful to agriculture. For the time being, the use of a camera is the most common choice and has a variety of applications for farmers. A second use is to equip the drone with sensors to be used in the collection of data for further analysis.
One of the most obvious uses for a drone is to simply count the crops in a field. An aerial view is far mire accurate and with the recording capabilities of the camera, can provide detailed information to the farmer. Drones can be programmed to flyover a field in specific patterns, virtually guaranteeing that an accurate count is made.
Though much of the focus of the use of drones focuses on crops, animal herds monitoring can also benefit from the use of drones. Herds can be regularly monitored and specific problem spots can be identified, taking swift action when necessary. When property boundaries become an issue, a drone can help establish the boundaries and prevent situations from deteriorating. Daily counts can be made without having to spend the time to physically visit the site.
2. Crop Production
The crop growth process needs to be monitored from seed planting to crop harvesting. This requires a constant watch on the growth stages of the various crops as well as estimated crop yields. Drones are far better equipped to handle these measurements than any other method. For specific crops such as corn, drones can be used to make oblique images of the field to best determine the time for detasseling.
3. Crop Protection
Crop protection comes in several different forms, the most obvious is preventing the spread of disease throughout the area. Drones can help identify diseased plants, allowing the farmer to plan a course of action to control the contamination. But having an action plan to preventing animals and birds from eating high value crops is also a critical part of crop protection. Drones are able to help with this by identifying wildlife that has the potential to eat or damage crops. Finally, when it comes to plants thee weed problem is one that cannot be ignored. Though not a disease in the usual sense, unchecked weed levels can do more harm to a field than many pathogens. Drones can be used to accurately assess weed growth in specific areas.
4. Data Collection Through Sensors
For farmers to integrate this option into their drone technology they will need a relative good knowledge of the capability of the sensors but also the ability to interpret the data gathered. The cost-effectiveness of purchasing the equipment and perhaps the hiring of a consulting firm to create useful information from the data may be lower than originally planned.
Specific data that drone sensors can collect are:
- Wind profiles
- Temperature and pressure profiles
- Water quality assessments
- Methane and carbon dioxide levels
With regional climate changes being seen everywhere combined with other environmental situations such as the lengthy drought in California, the use of drones in planning and projecting future profits can impact the survivability of the farm and of the business.
While the technology definitely has tremendous upside potential, there are practical limitations to consider. The first is the size of the drone. Again, we are not talking about military functionality but business use. Because the size of commercial drones are likely to be smaller, they will be limited in how much weight they can carry upward and how long they will be able to stay airborne. Currently, most drones can stay flying for about 20 minutes. The more equipment that is attached to the drone, the more fuel will be required to keep it airborne. That means either reduced flight time or a bigger frame, the latter which may not be legally possible.
But make no mistake. All farmers are waiting for is the FAA to pound out some reasonable guidelines and drone use in agriculture will skyrocket. After that, the sky is the limit.