Drones improve crop yields

By October 17, 2013
Drones and agriculture

Farmers looking to DIY drones to improve input planning and crop management

When former editor-in-chief of the iconic Wired Magazine Chris Anderson left his job, he started to build homemade drones designed to help improve productivity in the renowned NapaValley vineyards. Inspired by a first attempt he had made together with his children using Lego bricks and a remote control box, Anderson later launched his own company 3D Robotics, which aims to bring Big Data expertise to farmers using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). With a new generation of low-cost drones coming onto the market, any farmers can now potentially gather crop data on a continuous basis with a view to improving resource management and boosting annual yields.

Providing real-time information

An unmanned aircraft can be equipped to provide immediate infrared images of entire fields, which indicate for example areas suffering from water stress, show how well crops are growing, and point up fields that appear to have come under attack from plant diseases. Armed with this information, Big Data analysis tools can then sift the images to help the farmer review and improve irrigation systems and/or target fertilizer or pesticides with greater precision. Re-purposing military or recreational drones, farmers can use infrared camerasto measure crop photosynthesis. A major advantage of drones is that they enable ongoing monitoring of fields and crops. Explains Steve Cubbage, President of dedicated data management system firm Prime Meridian: “Drones are able to gather and process data much faster than standard airplanes can.”

New regulatory framework on the way

Given the complexity of handling UAVs, farmers are perhaps most likely to subcontract a drone when needed rather than buy and maintain their own aircraft. Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked by the United States Congress to publish a set of recommendations by September 2015 to regulate the commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and create a framework in which the various players in the UAV sector will operate. The current legislative situation is a serious barrier to development as to date US farmers have been entitled to use drones only, ostensibly, as part of a research program, not for commercial purposes. Going forward, this new use of aerial technology could help to mitigate the effects of the falling numbers of professional farmers at a time when the world population is set to rise to over 9 billion people by 2050, thus putting extra pressure on food growing. With more regular agronomic analysis, farmers will able to target their use of agricultural inputs more precisely. According to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the use of drones could generate gains of close to $82 billionfor the US economy over a decade, a large part of which should benefit the primary agriculture sector.

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