Drones in agriculture. How drones are transforming the agriculture industry
Nowadays, as the population of the Earth and subsequently the demand for food is continually increasing, the role of agriculture is becoming more and more critical. To meet this higher demand, we have to find ways to raise the volume and efficiency of agricultural output at the same time. In this struggle, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly known as drones) can be a proper means. According to a survey, the size of the market of agricultural drones will exceed USD 4.2 billion by 2022, which shows that many market players in the agricultural sector realize the advantages of drones.
The agricultural use of drones has two main directions: (i) the use of drones of farming activities like spraying and (ii) aerial mapping of the crops with high-density cameras followed by the evaluation of data with the help of special software.
Drones used for spraying
Chemical spraying plays a crucial role in modern agriculture to help preserve healthy crops until the harvest. As the size of farms are growing more and more spraying is needed which requires the farmer to use a variety of different spraying machines. With tractors, elevated spraying vehicles and aerial spraying significant areas can be covered. However, these machines are costly and require specific maintenance infrastructure and separate qualified personnel. Agricultural drones are far cheaper, and at the same time, a professional agricultural drone can cover 40-53 hectares a day which is twice as much as a tractor.
The agricultural six rotor drones (like FDXD-6R-16L) can carry a 16 Liter tank containing the pesticides. The best thing about these drones is that they can fly autonomously according to a flight plan programmed in advance (AB point mode). Such drones can be equipped with a module that can scan the terrain 500 times/ second to keep the drone at a safe altitude and avoid obstacles. These features and the ability for customization ensures that they will do their job with very high accuracy, economically and very quickly, while farmers can tend to other work on the farm. According to experiments, a drone can apply pesticides with up to 95% efficiency. The onboard computers of the drone store the data of the flight and can memorize the point where it shall restart spraying if the tank goes empty during spraying.
Precision agriculture – the aerial mapping
Drones help with farming other ways too. When it comes to drones in agriculture, we should get familiar with the concept of precision agriculture as well. It means that farmers manage crops to ensure the proper amount of inputs to maximize productivity while minimizing risks. To reach that objective farmers need to collect as much data as possible about the fields they cultivate and plants they grow. This analysis requires quick, precise and efficient mapping.
The traditional methods of measurement of fields and yields used to cost a lot of time and did not always lead to a result that was 100 % accurate. All experts agree that the aerial mapping has always been the best way to gather information about the state of an agricultural area. However, before the appearance of drones, this aerial mapping was only possible by manned aircraft that made the whole process very expensive, hence farmers having fewer resources were excluded from this vital analytics tool. Nowadays, this is not the case because drones are small, easy-to-handle and are far less expensive than manned aircraft.
Drones collecting data
Drones used for agricultural purposes are equipped with sensors that can take photos with a density up to 20 MP and with only one shot – depending on flight height – they can cover 4-5 hectares. (10-12 acres) Experts say that these sensors can make it possible to count the number of crops precisely. Thereby farmers can collect data that is more detailed and precise than ever before.
The sensors use several methods to scan the agricultural area: some sensors shoot still in visible light (VIS), others operate in a nearly infrared spectrum (NIS). The former is cheaper and provides data faster, but the sensors using NIS are capable of showing if plants suffer from stress caused by lack of water and other environmental factors.
From farms having a size of 400 hectares (1000 acres) most of the farmers already use drones for precision agriculture, and as in the US 134,4 million hectares (331,000,000 acres)are cultivated by farms bigger than 2000 hectares, (5000 acres) we can see that drones cannot be ignored in a modern farming operation anymore.
The very best thing is that a standard drone, like the DJI Phantom 4 PRO is that it can also be equipped with such devices without modifying the existing gimball. So, that high precision agriculture can be started with ordinary drones as well.
Software for aerial mapping
Drones and their sensors constitute only the hardware. The software that operates these tools is also a key factor because the software can help farmers to evaluate the results showed by the sensor accurately. Many software developers provide services to help assess and analyze the data collected.
Software like DroneDeploy is capable of making detailed maps of the inspection area.
Another cool feature of such software, that it can make suggestions about how and where to plant more healthy crops by using different algorithms. The aerial mapping with drones is 85 % faster than mapping performed with manned aircraft. This can be extremely important in case of measuring the effect of extreme weather events like storm or floods.
In many cases, farmers can subscribe to a service where a professional analysis company provides an analysis report based on the data collected by the drone, which is a good way of further decreasing costs.
Agricultural drones due to their weight and the fact that they are used for non-recreational purposes may be subject to local and federal legal regulations. Most agricultural areas are farther from inhabited areas, and neither spraying, nor aerial mapping requires high flight level, there is no need for a special waiver from the general flight regulations, but operators may require drone pilot airmen certificates. Acquiring a drone pilot certificate is still easier than getting a driving license to operate heavy agricultural vehicles.
The appearance of drones will lead the farming community to become a highly data-driven industry, which was unforeseen just a few years ago.
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