Far too often, farms and farmers are overlooked as antiquated and unchanging. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Agriculture is and always has been a cornerstone of civilization; as the latter has grown and developed, so has the former, with bold new farming technologies sprouting up every day.
Case in point, drones. From sport to surveillance to speedy deliveries, drone technology has taken off in recent years, and agriculture is yet another field where drones are revolutionizing life. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at how we got here, what advances are currently available for farmers, and where drone technology is taking us.
Drones in Agriculture by Dates and Data
The history of drones in agriculture goes back a lot further than you probably think — all the way back to 1921, when the USDA and US Army worked to deploy a proto-drone for crop dusting purposes in Dayton, Ohio.
Aerial vehicles were utilized in various capacities in the decades following that, with first RC-controlled helicopters and then the earliest drones being used in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the first camera drone taking flight in 1985. In 1987, Yamaha unveiled the first modern Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, with a commercial version following a couple of years later.
Drone sophistication and usage has grown mightily over the decades. 2016 saw an estimated 7 million consumer drone shipments, a number which is estimated to balloon to 29 million in 2021. Sales reached $8.5 billion globally in 2016, and are likely to grow to $12 billion in 2021.
Agricultural Drone Uses
Internet of Things
One of the most talked-about breakthroughs in the tech sphere is the Internet of Things. In a nutshell, it refers to the potential for greater integration between physical objects and the Internet. Imagine being able to scan an item and pull up information about it on your phone, and you have the basic idea.
This technological revolution may seem far afield of the fields of your farm, but in fact, it has the potential to increase your yields. Theoretically, you could scan different crops and gain instant information about how to increase productivity and reduce blights.
3-D Imaging of Soil
One of the great constants about farming efforts around the world for thousands of years is that more information about soil conditions yields better and more efficient farming. Farmer’s almanacs and maps then, digitized data and 3-D imaging now.
With the help of drones, you can take detailed 3-D images of your soil at the beginning, middle, and end of different crop cycles. This can help you track how the soil quality changes over the months and years, making it that much easier to address issues. For example, this can help you identify dead zones in your soil and revive them faster, or aid with nutrient management. 3-D soil imaging can also help with determining the most efficient patterns for crop planting, which is easier to do with a drone’s birds-eye view.
Recent farm drones have been outfitted with Near Infrared (NIR) sensors, which are used to gauge the health of crops such as vines. Images from satellites and planes were used to give this kind of information in the past, but these resources are far costlier than drones. What’s more, drones can provide you with faster real-time imaging than these methods can.
It’s fair to say that one of the most arduous and tedious elements of farming is actually planting all those seeds in the first place. Since the Industrial Revolution, the trend has been towards more and more mechanization and automation in this process, and that’s possibly reached its apex with drone seed planting.
The solution here almost seems to be something out of science fiction: drones that literally fly over farmland and shoot seeds into pre-prepped soil. While this technology is still new, we are making strides towards it becoming more accessible for more farmers. This is already being used in a limited form, with DroneSeed using its drones to replant areas scorched by recent wildfires. These drones can deliver as much as 57 pounds of seeds, providing much-needed help to reforestation efforts.
All of this can make it faster and easier to plant and replant vast swaths of land. Early available data backs this up, with estimates of 75% to 85% increases in yield.
As mentioned above, the earliest instances of first aerial and then unmanned crafts used for farming purposes were done for crop spraying and dusting. This is essential for fertilizing fields and keeping them well hydrated. As with crop planting, all of this accomplished much more easily and efficiently by doing this from the air, which is why crop dusting pilots have been a fixture of farming for decades.
That being said, planes and pilots can prove costly, especially for small farms, which is why there is so much enthusiasm over drones as a smaller-scale crop spraying and dusting alternative. This is made possible by the fact that farm drones are being made with increasingly large reservoirs, which in turn allows them to drop greater amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.
Even better, drones can be preprogrammed to run specific routes and specific times, saving you that much more time, money, and effort in spraying, fertilizing, and maintaining your crops. In addition, the aforementioned 3-D imaging capabilities of drones can be paired with their crop-spraying capabilities to treat blights and other issues. Drones can spot these issues from the sky, be prepared with the right crop-curing nutrients and medicines, and then sprayed over the whole farm, rather than treating things piecemeal.
Yet another essential yet exhausting and time-consuming element of farming, irrigation is thankfully also yet another area where drones can make things much easier. As with many of the above categories, innovative cameras (in this case. thermal imaging ones) may provide invaluable assistance.
These cameras can identify areas receiving too much or too little moisture from the sky, helping you spot whole swaths of farmland that need treatment far more quickly than you could from a grounded perspective.
Monitor Livestock in Real-Time
Let’s be honest; for as important as sheep, cows, and other livestock have been to the development of agriculture and civilization as a whole over the millennia, they can be a pain to keep track of. For thousands of years, watch dogs, fences, and farmers’ own eyes were the best tools we had in keeping livestock from going too far afield or eating too much of one’s crops.
Once again, this is an instance where drones’ birds-eye views can be invaluable. They can keep better track of your livestock than you ever could, watching the whole farm at once and making sure that your livestock don’t run off.
Those same thermal imaging cameras mentioned above that can keep track of your soil and plant conditions can also track animals, giving you real-time information about where they are and what they’re doing, all while acting as a massive time-saver for you. Thermal imaging can also help you pick up on potential predators so you can better protect your livestock.
Legislation and The Future
As with any new technology, there is a lot that still needs to be figured out legally with drones, on the farm and elsewhere. In fairness, the current laws on the books against drone usage tend to stem from two serious concerns, environmental impact and counterterrorism laws. Both of those are important and worthwhile concerns, but the potential for farmers here is fertile as well.
That’s why the good here is that there are numerous attempts underway in different countries to carve out drone exceptions for farmers, allowing them to use drones for:
- Reducing ground compaction
- Spraying tall crops such as corn
- Spraying around or under power lines
- Spraying in difficult terrain
- Spraying diseased areas
- Rooting out pest populations
All of this is to be done with increased ecological awareness so farmers can enjoy the many benefits that farming drones can provide without adding to our growing global environmental crisis.
And all of that is just the beginning. Just as the Industrial Revolution spurred farm production to peaks never before dreamed of, so too do drones and accompanying technology have the capability of increasing yield production in myriad ways.
For example, if one drone is beneficial, why not use many? Drone swarms are being looked at as a potential answer for farming entire areas far faster and more efficiently than ever dreamed of. Just as a single drone could do work faster than any human could, a swarm of drones can be more efficient than one drone working alone.
Drones can also help with pollination. Bee populations are declining worldwide, giving farmers with drones the chance to be eco-heroes by helping boost bees with improved pollination efforts. Then there are less obvious but still essential financial implications, such as drones’ benefit to farmers’ insurance policies. Drone perspectives can improve farmers’ abilities to inspect sites and make claims.
Far from being stuck in the past, drones are the future of farming, and what a high-flying future it is.