By now, you’ve probably heard that drones are disrupting the agriculture industry. But what does that mean, exactly? Drones aren’t harvesting crops or watering plants, so what are the drones doing all day?
There’s a lot more to farming than just planting seeds, watering them and picking them once they’ve grown. And with the widespread adoption of drones, agriculture is getting even more precise and efficient.
The agricultural drone market has the potential to generate an additional 100,000 jobs in the U.S. and $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025, according to a 2015 Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report.
“People in the U.S. and EU no longer want to work on farms due to factors such as low farm incomes, its lack of reliability and seasonal nature, and its demanding and risky nature,” the report states. “Today, less than 1% of the U.S. population claims farming as an occupation – with the average number of U.S. farmworkers having declined from 3.4 million last century to 1 million today.”
Here are 10 specific ways drones are disrupting agriculture, as told through an infographic by my friends at software company Chetu:
1.Fighting Crop Diseases: Drones can be used for multispectral imaging, meaning that the tiny flying robots are outfitted with crop health sensors that run NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index). Aerial NDVI sensors aren’t totally new — they used to be outfitted to manned airplanes — but with drones, they are quicker and cheaper. And these days, these sensors are so compact they can be outfitted to consumer drones like the DJI Phantom or even a DJI Mavic.
2. Fertilizer: NDVI is used for more than just analyzing diseases. NDVI images may be able to prescribe fertilizer applications, estimate yields and identify weeds. (NDVI is an important graphical indicator for farmers to analyze remote sensing measurements and assess whether the land contains live green vegetation or not.)
3. NIR Sensors: Similar to NDVI, near-infrared sensors can determine plant health based on light absorption.
4. Artificial Intelligence: Drones are getting so smart, that farmers don’t necessarily need to be “drone experts” in order to use them. Aerovironment, which primarily makes military-focused drones, in 2017 launched the Quantix, a $16,500 drone for farmers. The Quantix has been a game-changer for farmers with its fully-automated takeoff, flight and landing, eliminating the learning curve for agricultural experts who don’t necessarily want to learn how to fly a drone. The Quantix can then quickly map acreage (it can scout up to 400 acres in 45 minutes), allowing farmers to easily spot crop health and operational issues that might be missed by the naked eye. From there, anomalies can be identified and ground truthed to determine water, insect, weed and disease pressures.
5. Pollination: Drone companies such as Bee Innovative have been tracking honeybees in real time for precision pollination. Bee Innovative claims that its “BeeDar” solution has already delivered 20 percent increases in crop yields and returns for farmers season to season. And California-based agriculture technology startup DropCopter allows farmers to pollinate orchards via drones.
6. Food Security: Whether it’s generating more vegetables, fruits or even coffee beans, drones are able to maximize crop yields. There’s no better example of that than the work being done by Lyela Mutisya, who is using drones to help her father’s coffee farm in Kenya. She said many Kenya farms can’t afford fertilizer (a well-managed coffee farm can produce up to 30 pounds of coffee per tree, but a coffee farm that can’t afford fertilizer produces more like 5 pounds of coffee per tree). Drone technology is effective at collecting data to help coffee farmers improve crop health. They can have a role in efficient crop scouting, earlier yield predictions, earlier crop stress detection, enhanced irrigation management and control, and more precise nutrient and chemical applications.
7. Pesticides: And on that note, pest and decision control is very important in coffee farming, as well as all other types of agriculture. Pests can cause an 80% loss in coffee trees. That alone can significantly hurt a coffee farm. If a tree were to get infected and lose 80% of their crop, a drone can help prevent that.
8. Herbicides: In fact, DJI launched its own crop spraying drone back in November 2015.
9. Thermal Cameras: In December 2015, DJI announced a collaboration with Flir Systems Inc., an Oregon-based sensor manufacturer that focuses on thermal imaging. In agriculture, farmers use thermal imaging as they fly over fields to indicate dry spots, over-watering, crop height or pesticide use.
10. Planting Seeds: Companies such as DroneSeed are building drones that can blast fertilizer and seeds into the ground at 350 feet per second. DroneSeed says its solution is good for the environment, worker safety and investors. DroneSeed’s drones currently have a flight time of about 30 minutes; after changing batteries, the drones can cover an acre within 1.5 hours.