Recurrent floods, heat waves, hampering drought, heavy rains….these are just some of the challenges that XXI century farmers are facing. In order to keep meeting the market demand and achieving a satisfying production level, a whole new set of technology has been deployed on the fields, making digitalisation the new revolution in the agricultural sector.
The drone market has been definitely on the rise in the past years. In 2016, the value of drone sales peaked at USD $8,5 billions, and, according to a study by the European Commission, the
“value of global drone sales is expected to surpass USD $12 billions by 2021”
This is no surprise since drones are currently used in many different fields, from the military to medicine and wildlife conservation. But, what about agriculture? Is it possible to use drones to support the farmers achieving a better yield or assisting them in the field management? Let’s find out!
The answer is: “Yes, drones are used in agriculture, and for many different purposes too!”. But, how does it work?
First of all, drones have different sizes. Usually, in agriculture, bigger drones are used to carry loads (e.g. for planting or spraying) while smaller drones are used for field/crop monitoring purposes. Regarding the type of drone, most drones used in the agricultural sector are multi-rotor drones, as they are cheaper and simpler to use (Puri et al., 2017).
What are drones used in agriculture for?
There are 7 major uses for drones in agriculture, divided in monitoring an applications purposes:
- Field analysis. Drones are used to produce 3D maps of the field which allow for a better design of the planting patterns
- Crop monitoring and field scouting. Drones can be used to monitor the crop throught the whole growing season. By monitoring some vegetation parameters it is possible to find out nitrogen deficiencies and/or conditions of drought stress at very early stages, and potentially save the crop in time. This approach can be used also to control the good functioning of the irrigation system, as it allows to find out if and where the crop receives too little or too much water across the whole field
- Pest monitoring. The same concept can be applied to control the spreading of agricultural pests by assessing vegetation parameters which might reveal a biotic stress condition
- Applications (King, 2017)(Iost Filho et al., 2020)
- Crop spraying. Drones can be used to target the areas infested by the agricultural pests and to focus the spraying solely on those areas. This, besides lowering the spraying costs, allows for a more efficient and less impacting use of agrochemicals
- Aerial planting. Although not as in use as the former applications, drones can be deployed on the fields to fire seed pods directly in the ground, saving the labor costs associated with planting operations
- Pest control. Especially in greenhouses, drones are being increasingly used to deploy antagonists of agricultural pests in integrated agricultural pest management programs
- Weed control. Research is also trying to use drones to detect weeds on the crop rows, aiming at an optimization of the weed management procedures.
There are some drawbacks though…
Even though multi-rotors drones are cheaper and not as complicated to pilote as other types of drones, small-scale producers might not be able to afford them. The cost-benefit analysis of using drones in small-scale farms might not be as convenient as for large-scale enterprises.
Also, from a technical point of view, the drone has to be capable of collecting high resolution images and distinguishing between different colors at a distance (which are the main indicators of plants’ health).
…and challenges ahead
In addition, the amount of data collected is usually considerably high and its interpration might be not very straight-forward. This means that the technician or farmer who will deal with the data processing and analysis process, should either already have a certain level of expertise or be trained accordingly.
It is not unlikely that, in the future, we will then end up seeing more drones than birds flying over the fields in the countryside. If so, there is another advantage the use of drones may have…scarecrows won’t be needed anymore!
Iost Filho, F. H., Heldens, W. B., Kong, Z., & de Lange, E. S. (2020). Drones: Innovative Technology for Use in Precision Pest Management. Journal of Economic Entomology, 113(1), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/toz268
King, A. (2017). Technology: The Future of Agriculture. Nature, 544(7651), S21–S23. https://doi.org/10.1038/544S21a
Puri, V., Nayyar, A., & Raja, L. (2017). Agriculture drones: A modern breakthrough in precision agriculture. Journal of Statistics and Management Systems, 20(4), 507–518. https://doi.org/10.1080/09720510.2017.1395171