The demand for food production and consumption is increasing substantially, putting world food supply at all time high and commodity prices at an all time-low. The constantly increasing population and food demand has coaxed farmers and agronomists to shift from traditional methods of evaluating and managing farm environments that are highly complex, time-consuming and labour-intensive to smart farming practices that are focused on leveraging data to ensure better resource management, operational efficiency and profitability.

Furthermore, climate change, crop disease and pest control are ongoing challenges that continue to add new layers of complexity and risks for farmers and growers and those in the supply chain industry. Lack of or limited access to technology, data and market research services further aggravate these challenges for many small farmers. Thankfully, a new wave of digitalisation has hit the agriculture industry over the recent years – resulting in increased adoption of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), by farmers and agribusinesses alike to protect their crops, add more efficiency and convenience to various farm activities and ensure greater profitability.

ADOPTION OF DRONE TECHNOLOGY IN VARIOUS FARMING PRACTICES

While drones have been used in military and business applications for many years, they are increasingly proving their worth in the agriculture industry by allowing farmers to become highly data-driven.  

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are gradually becoming an integral part of smart farming and sustainable agricultural management, helping agriculture professionals to leverage their resources more efficiently and drive economic benefits. Use of drones in the agriculture industry allows farmers, agronomists and agricultural engineers to streamline their operations using comprehensive and accurate data analytics. While satellites and manned aircrafts have long been helping traditional farmers to monitor their fields and agricultural activities, UAVs built for the agriculture industry are gaining more attention and importance as they gather information in a more accurate and cost-effective manner.

HOW DO AGRICULTURAL DRONES WORK?

On the surface, agricultural drones look and function just as drones used in other industries do; the application of the UAV changes to fit the specific needs of the farmer or agribusiness. However, some drones are specifically made for agricultural applications. To better understand the use of drones in agriculture, it is important to dig deep into the drone technology. Typically, a drone comprises a global positioning system (GPS), propulsion and navigation system, sensors and cameras, programmable controllers and tools for automated flights. Use of global positioning system (GPS) technology coupled with geographic information system (GIS) tools allows for effecting monitoring and mapping of crops.

The data acquisition process in agricultural drones occurs in four steps:

1. Indicating flight parameters: This involves outlining and evaluating the area to monitor and uploading GPS data into the drone navigation system.

2. Autonomous flights: The flight planning software makes an automated flight path around the surveillance area according to the pre-established parameters and the UAV drone carries out a flight through that path to collect the required data.

3. Data upload: The drone submits the data it has captured from the field for further processing and analysis.

4. Data delivery: After the uploaded data has been processed, it is made available in a readable format for farmers to access. The database provides insightful information which helps with better farm management and decision making. 

APPLICATIONS OF DRONES IN AGRICULTURE

  • Determining Soil and Livestock Conditions

Previously, farmers would visit the field and evaluate soil and crop conditions manually to make further decisions. Equipped with smart sensors, drones automatically monitor required areas to quickly identify problems that are not easily detected with ground-level checks. Automatic data collection also makes the process faster, easier and more precise. 

  •  Monitoring Crops

With large fields, it is nearly impossible to inspect all the crops and determine their overall health. Drones allow farmers to inspect each and every area across the field effectively, stay updated with the health of crops, and identify areas that need immediate attention on time. They use infrared cameras to determine light absorption rates and evaluate the overall state of crops. The real-time, accurate information help farmers take important measures to improve crop production and productivity.      

  • Planning Future Crops

Dropping traditional, time-consuming planting methods, the farmer can leverage drones to identify areas with most suitable soil conditions for planting crops. Some advanced drone models also allow you to shoot seeds into the field with high speed and spray with water, fertilisers or pesticides, significantly reducing manual labour, time and costs spent on these processes.

  • Spraying/Cropdusting

Many drones are equipped with advanced technology that allows smart farmers to spray crops with far more precision and speed than a traditional tractor or airplane. This helps to reduce manual labour and limit human exposure to pesticides, fertilisers and other harmful chemicals. Besides, drones are faster and more efficient when it comes to spot treatment. The automatic sensors and cameras in drones can detect infected areas and spray on them without touching healthy crops.

  • Monitoring Livestock

In livestock farming, drones not only enable ranchers to constantly monitor their animals as they graze on pastures, but also help them detect injured or sick cattle, find lost cattle and keep animal count. 

The Takeaway

Industry experts have identified Australian agriculture as one of the most promising field for UAV applications. The drone technology has the potential to transform modern farms and agriculture practices with accurate, real-time data. With comprehensive data analytics at their fingertips, farmers and agribusinesses can gain more control over their farm activities, resources, expenses and output. For example, by identifying areas inflicted with weeds, insects and pests, farmers can estimate the right amount of fertiliser needed to treat infected crops at the right time, ensuring significant cost and environmental savings. To reap all these benefits of drone technology, however, you must ensure proper planning which includes everything from determining business goals and choosing the right drone software and features. This can be a complex process and takes time, so it advised to only work with a reliable and reputed third-party drone service provider.