Drones have drastically improved agricultural efficiency, both in terms of cost and labor. They’re spraying crops with pesticides and herbicides, better targeting where exactly those chemicals go to improve plant health while protecting the environment (and saving money). They’re being outfitted with sensors to analyze plant health, water levels and more. And often, those sensors are so compact they can be outfitted to consumer drones like the DJI Phantom or even a DJI Mavic. And as imaging sensors get smaller and more efficient the cost-benefit of this technology will continue to grow.
Depending on your agricultural use-case, there’s probably a drone that can do it, and a drone for every budget.
The best drone for spraying: DJI’s AGRAS MG-1S
This ~$15,000 drone is an octocopter (it has eight motors, arms and propellers), designed to carry 10kg of fluid to assist in pesticide and herbicide delivery. It can cover 10 acres (4 hectares) in a single flight, which DJI says is 60 times faster than manual spraying.
The drone has four nozzles located under the motors, which are industry standard ceramic nozzles that can be swapped out if necessary for different spray requirements.
The drone can fly and spray entirely on its own, allowing you to plan your flight path and tell it how much liquid you want set per area. From there, the drone can calculate the remaining parameters for you, and also allows you to set Efficient Mode or Intensive Spraying Mode, depending on your flight.
The best drone for agricultural mapping: The Delair UX11 Ag
The Delair UX11 Ag is a plant mapping drone, allowing you to collect land aerial intelligence more accurately and efficiently. The drone is capable of onboard data processing and with wireless and 3G/4G communications, allowing you to overlay maps for temporal analysis.
Unlike the other drones, this is a fixed-wing drone, which means it is capable of flying longer distances and for longer periods of time (up to 50 minutes, across 30 miles).
The drone carries a high-end multispectral camera for plant level measures.
While their drones start at about $13,000, European users have an interesting option with the Delair line of drones, as they can potentially see some significant savings by renting a drone through Delair’s Takeoff drone rental program.
The best drone for agricultural mapping: The SenseFly eBee SQ
The eBee SQ is a fixed wing drone, designed to carry the Parrot Sequoia+, a light, multispectral drone sensor that can capture images of crops across four highly defined, visible and non-visible spectral bands, plus RGB imagery, in just one flight. Once the drone’s images have been processed, users can use software such as Pix4Dmapper Ag/Pro software or cloud-based solutions such as MicaSense ATLAS and AIRINOV’s. The Sequoia’s broad spectral data enables numerous vegetation indices to be computed including NDVI, NDRE, MCARI and CCCI, able to generate maps that can assess factors such as a plant’s chlorophyll levels, a key indicator of crop health.
SenseFly says the drone can cover up to 10 times more ground than small quadcopter drones.
SenseFly was acquired by Parrot in 2012. Additionally, the company holds the title of most popular fixed-wing drones in the U.S.
The best drone for thermal imaging in agriculture: Matrice M210 with Zenmuse XT2
By combining aerial infrared and visual cameras, farmers can see a view of crops that cannot be seen with the naked eye, better understanding healthy vs. distressed plants and allows for rapid action where necessary.
The drone can be upgraded with DJI’s D-RTK GNSS system to allow for centimeter level hovering accuracy. It’s also compatible with DJI’s SDK so users can control up to 5 aircraft simultaneously, making inspecting a large farmland more efficient than previously possible.
The camera and drone is compatible with DJI Pilot, an Andrroid app designed for enterprise-users that allows you to adjust flight modes, see on-screen temperature measurements and more.
The Zenmuse XT2 is also compatible with DJI’s M200 Series, M200 Series V2 and M600 Pro drones.
The best drone for thermal imaging in agriculture (budget pick): DJI Inspire 1 with Zenmuse XT camera
While not as powerful as the Matrice M210, the DJI Inspire 1 can be an excellent thermal imaging tool when equipped with a DJI Zenmuse XT thermal imaging camera, powered by FLIR’s industry leading Tau 2 thermal cameraR. The XT’s thermal capabilities is also useful for irrigation and water pooling management, providing high-sensitivity (50mK) thermal imaging at 640/30 fps or 336/30 fps depending on the camera model. This sensitivity provides accurate temperature measurements ideal for analytics and telemetry.
The Zenmuse XT thermal camera works in conjunction with the DJI XT Pro iOS app, allowing you to see a real-time, low-latency camera view with on-screen temperature estimates.
The Zenmuse XT is also compatible with the Matrice 100, Matrice 200, Matrice 600, and Matrice 600 Pro.
The best option for NDVI if you already have a DJI drone: Sentera’s NDVI Single Sensor
NDVI, the normalized difference vegetation index, is an important graphical indicator for farmers to analyze remote sensing measurements and assess whether the land contains live green vegetation or not. NDVI images may be able to prescribe fertilizer applications, estimate yields and identify weeds. If you already have a DJI drone (either the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, Inspire or Mavic drone), the best budget option is adding Sentera’s NDVI Single Sensor, designed specifically to integrate with those drones.
The sensor captures visual-band RGB, near-infrared (NIR) and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data and then interprets it in the field to detect problem areas and respond with action.
If you have a Mavic or Phantom, you’ll have to send in your drone to Sentera or a Sentera-authorized dealer, and they’ll return it as a precision ag tool that produces high-quality NDVI or NDRE data.
If you have an Inspire, it’s even easier. You just click the Double 4K sensor into the Inspire’s existing socket, no tools required.
The best drone for crop consulting: DJI Mavic 2 Pro
If you simply need to survey your field for signs of stress or disease (you could otherwise do this from the ground by manually walking through your field, which can be a labor-intensive processes, particularly as crops thicken), a lower-cost drone can do the job. The DJI Mavic 2 Pro will be able to do everything you need, at the lowest possible cost. It’s also arguable the easiest to use of all the drones in this guide, ready to fly out of the box.
DJI also offers a Mavic 2 Pro Enterprise version, which incorporates a FLIR dual imaging sensor, but if you’re just looking to get a general survey of your land, the Pro may likely be sufficient.