Innovative uses for drones in agriculture
Updated: Oct 17
Drones seem to be everywhere today. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are basically remotely controlled (by a human operator) or fully autonomous flying platforms that can be adapted for various applications. Drones are typically self-stabilizing and rotor-driven, with multiple rotors (4-8), and can navigate via pre-programmed routes or by using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to track objects or follow dynamic flight paths. Originally developed for military applications, drones are now everywhere and they are finding more and more commercial, industrial and agricultural applications.
According to a 2019 report, the agricultural drone market alone is expected to grow to over $4.8 billion USD by 2024. This growth is primarily driven by pressures on global food supply due to the growing world population and new venture capitalist (VC) funding and investments in autonomous farming technologies, including agriculture drones.
While many farmers may not be at a size, scale or level of complexity to be ready to consider adding flying robotic helpers, it's worth understanding how this technology is being applied today and how you might think about its potential on your farm. Read more about some of the many uses for drones in agriculture.
Applications of agriculture drones
With the increased movement of operations to more precision farming practices, especially for large-scale operations, drones are seeing a steady increase in adoption for agricultural uses.
In many areas, drone use has become an essential part of large-scale precision farming operations already. Data from drones used in precision farming operations is helping farmers to monitor crop health, optimize treatments and irrigation, and improve yields - all of which help farmers to improve their bottom line.
Keep reading to learn about some of the innovative ways that drones are being used in agriculture. Maybe it'll spark an idea that you can try on your farm.
Scouting Crop Health Monitoring
Farmers perform routine and regular scouting of crops to detect issues or threats such as pests, disease, poor growth rates, nutrient or water deficiencies and more. Typically this crop monitoring is performed by walking or driving through a planted field and performing visual inspections and taking soil samples from various locations. With the help of agricultural drone technologies farmers can now perform more comprehensive and efficient monitoring of plant health with less effort.
Drones can be equipped with special agriculture specific imaging technology to create and analyze a vegetation indices map. This Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) technology enables farmers to quickly scan a large area of planted crops. The system will generate and analyze a Near Infra Red image map to help farmers identify healthy and unhealthy plants, allowing farmers to quickly identify and respond to specific problem areas before issues affect the whole crop.
Many farmers are familiar with using satellite imagery to monitor crop performance and identify potential issues, the use of drones with normal optical cameras allows farmers to get a closer, more real-time picture of what is happening with their crops. The option to get higher resolution images and data even when there is cloud cover provides farmers with the ability to respond more quickly should issues be identified.
Monitoring Field and Pasture Conditions with Drones
Another area where agriculture drones have started to make an impact on crop and livestock yields is through monitoring of field and pasture conditions. Whether you're growing crops or grazing livestock the conditions of your field or paddock are critical to the health of your plants and animals and to your resulting yields.
By leveraging drones, farmers and ranchers are able to keep an eye on overall soil health and conditions without needing to do regular 'boots on the ground' scouting and soil sampling. Agricultural drones can help to identify drainage patterns, look for overly wet or dry spots, help identify grazing rotation timing, and can also monitor nitrogen levels to support the precision application of fertilizers.
Agriculture Drone for Spray Applications
In South Korea, drones are performing as much as 30% of agriculture spraying applications. While this use of agricultural drones has not been as widely adopted outside of south-east Asia, drone sprayers offer an innovative solution for farmers to access hard to reach places, perform more surgical spraying applications of pesticides, reduce costs and reduce the health risk to workers who are currently using backpack sprayers.
While this technology is promising many countries do not currently allow widespread use of drone based sprayers for agriculture usage. There are many safety and regulatory issues that might need to be addressed before we see widespread applications of agriculture drones for pesticide application.
Farm and Ranch Security
Farms and ranches often cover large areas and are located in hard to reach places. This can make the monitoring of the physical security of the property a real challenge. Many commercial and manufacturing organizations with large acreages have been turning to drones to help monitor and secure their property. Drones provide a nimble and cost effective solution to allow farmers and ranchers to keep an eye on corners of their property including fences, warehouses, silos, livestock paddocks, and more without having to perform tedious manual patrols. Using drones a farmer can quickly check on hard to reach corners of their property or send a drone to take a look at a potential issue before sending people to respond to a potentially hazardous situation.
Drones for Livestock Management
Livestock grazing and ranching operations typically cover large and remote areas and can present challenges to manage. By using drones, ranchers can more effectively monitor and manage their animals taking less time and using fewer resources. Some of the recent applications of drones for livestock management include herd tracking and monitoring, health checks, livestock fence checks and even the herding of animals using drone technology.
By using drones cattle and sheep farmers are able to check on distance herds, evaluate water sources and paddock health, and determine the ideal time for grazing movements. Ranchers are also experimenting with using drones as remote shepherds to push cattle herds or sheep flocks to other grazing locations or to help guide a lost animal back to the herd.
Additionally, livestock drone applications can help ranchers monitor herd health by performing remote cattle or sheep counting, assessing overall livestock herd health, performing visual animal inspections and even checking animal weights.
Crop Pollinating with Drones
Bees are hard to beat as pollinators, but with risks posed by the steady decline of these vital pollinators, farmers are looking for alternative solutions to pollinate their crops. A number of startups have sprung up and are testing drone base crop pollination. While drones are able to collect large amounts of pollen and move quickly through fields of crops delivering the pollen we are a long way off from finding a technology based replacement for the honey bee.
Planting & Seeding with Drones
One last innovative uses of drones for agriculture that we found in our research was using drones for seeding and planting. A key area that is leveraging this technology is to combat deforestation and increase biodiversity, especially in areas that have been devastated by wild fires. A few startups, including AirSeed out of Australia and DroneSeed in Washington state have been pioneering drone technology to strategically plant tree seeds by drone. The drones use proprietary seed pods and artificial intelligence (AI) to plant up to 40,000 trees per day.
Imaging cruising over your row crops or paddocks at 400ft to inspect your crops or wrangle a stray calf that's wandered off. Startup Ryse Aerotech has created the solution for you. While more of a personal aircraft than a drone, their new Recon ultralight is capable of carrying a single passenger up to a 400ft elevation and traveling at speeds of 50 knots. Now you can leave your ATV in the garage and flying over to the other side of the ranch. Unfortunately, the current technology only offers a 25 minute flight time, so you might need a ride back, but either was this technology provides a glimpse into some of the emerging drone technology. Learn more at Ryse Areotech.
Drones have already started to impact and change the farming industry and are likely to continue to do so for years to come. While drones may not be the right tool for all farmers, they do offer innovative ideas for ways that technology can help farmers and ranchers be more productive, increase crop yields, reduce crop and livestock losses, reduce pesticide applications and improve margins.
If you're interested in learning more about incorporating drones into your operation we would suggest starting small and slowly to understand the potential benefits before making larger investments.
If using technology on your farm interests you, take a look at Farmbrite for your farm management. You can store images and files within your account and lots of other types of data. Give us a try for free.