The technology industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. As producers strive to feed a continuously increasing global population, it’s no doubt that the agricultural sector poses a high demand for technological advancements. Drones are one of many current technological ideas being adopted to benefit today’s agricultural sector. The capability of drones to greatly improve efficiency in agriculture makes drones an attractive advancement in helping to ensure that agriculture will withstand a sustainable future. Although the concept of drones is not an entirely new idea, the ability of agricultural drones to allow for sustainability in terms of the environment, economy, and social aspect of society are factors that are backing the current excitement for drone use in the agriculture sector.
Brief History of Drone Technology
Early Development of Drone Technology
A large amount of attention has been placed on drones and their evident capabilities to influence the productivity and efficiency of agriculture in North America. Although the hype of drone use in agriculture is currently a hot topic and a seemingly advanced addition to the sector, it’s interesting to find out that drone technology has actually been around for nearly a century. Initially developed with the intent to take down enemy Zepplins, the first drone design was developed in 1916. Although this drone did not actually take flight, modifications and differing intended uses continued to spark the advancements to several models of drones during the WWI-WWII period.
Modern-Day Drones in Agriculture
For modern-day drones, agriculture is a promising industry for adoption. Despite the demand for drones however, access to use this technology isn’t easy. Drone use is highly regulated, as privacy and safety are a main concern of governments. However the increasing numbers of producers and agronomists adopting drone technology is forcing legislature to adapt alongside them. The first permit to use a drone for agricultural purposes issued by the Federal Aviation Administration of America was in January of 2015. These permits seem to be one of the only roadblocks in the way of drone technology becoming a new norm in agriculture.
The Ruston Proctor Aerial Target (1916) was one
of the first UAVs ever designed for military use.
Typical drone used in modern-day agriculture.
Drone Applications in Agriculture
Farmers are looking for cheaper alternatives to manage their large plots of land. Government regulations prevent farmers; farmers have to work with companies that use drones for commercial use. Drones or Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) can be used in the agricultural sector for the following purposes;
- Identification of pests, diseases and weeds.
- Collection of tissue samples tests for fertility & disease issues.
- Collection of soil samples to test for soil, fertility, pH & pest issues.
- Digging up plants to inspect plant root structure for signs of compaction, depth, disease, pests.
- Measurements of erosion channel width & depth.
- Notification of machine issues & other visual defects.
- Counting plants to determine population & spacing issues.
- Conducting exploratory excavation to determine drainage tile, depth, size & location.
In bad weather conditions or low visibility areas with drone use things that can’t be seen with the naked eye such as; Crop health, soil water content, topography & field borders and pest& fungal infections become clearly visible. Much of the data that growers need to improve their decision-making can be made available with the right spectroscopy tools. The human eye can only detect a fraction of the information about an object that can be measured remotely. With properly calibrated imaging tools the difference between healthy and stressed plants can clearly be differentiated in bands beyond the visible spectrum. It may also be used for routine inspections and things such as map making & taking measurements. Night time animal herd (monitoring). UAVs use complex computer chips similar to those used in smartphones which can upload thousands of gigabytes of data though Wi-Fi hotspots.
Farmers also can use drones to tailor their use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and Fungicide applications based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field in a process known as precision agriculture thus saving the grower money from unnecessarily overusing resources while at the same time reducing the amount of runoff that could flow into nearby rivers and streams. UAVs can be used to collect field
Drones could have a huge effect on improving environmental sustainability in the coming years in multiple areas of agriculture. One of them, is that drones are being equipped with multi-spectral cameras that can take several different types of pictures of the field and even overlay these pictures to create very valuable information for the farmer during the growing seasons. These pictures provide a range of information from plant health to soil conditions. While a crop is growing, the drone could detect a stressed area of the field; this stress could be from insects, disease, lack of fertilizer or others. Instead of the farmer treating the whole field for the issue, a farmer could use the maps to variable spray the solution onto the crops to solve the problem. This would decrease the farmer’s inputs on such things as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, lowering their input costs and reducing stress on the environment. The use of drones to check fields or any other day to day observation tasks could be done by a drone, allowing the farmer to remain in one place, reducing his travel and fuel consumption.
Today's agricultural drones are compact and capable of a variety of functions. Shown
above is a drone being used to scout crops.
Throughout the last couple of years California has experienced a very deadly drought, severely damaging the natural vegetation and crops of the state. Trials and testing have been done using drones to fly up into the clouds and conduct cloud seeding, a scientific way of increasing precipitation in clouds to lead to rain. The use of drones to do this method has sparked much interest as they can complete the process easier than traditional methods. In, summary, the use of drones has great potential to improve environmental conditions all around it and especially agriculture sectors. The use of drones could reduce inputs and increase outputs in almost every way it us used and reduce current strains upon the environment.
The economy is constantly changing with the increasing advancement of technology. According to many agricultural specialists, 2015 will be the start of something special for the Agriculture industry. 2015 is the start of the drone era for agriculture, and the projections on the agriculture economy look positive. Some analysts project a huge jump in the economy as well as an increase in jobs added. According to a recent survey by the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International), the Agriculture sector is the largest market for drones, accounting for 80% of all commercial use. The study also mentions that the total economic impact on agriculture spending on drones in Kansas, is projected to reach over $75 million with 772 job created in 2015. The same study by AUVSI also estimated that the economic effect of allowing agricultural drones into the national airspace would be above $2.3 billion dollars and would create 12,000 jobs in California. The AUVSI just recently published a report that estimates that drones could have a cumulative $82 billion economic impact on the USA between 2015 and 2025. There are conflicting reports that between 80% and 92% of the commercial drone economy are from agricultural use. This means that drone use could give the agricultural economy a boost from between $65.6 Billion to $75.44 Billion in the next ten years. The inclusion of drones for agricultural use will help sustain and improve the agricultural economy for years to come.
The graph above illustrates the estimated spending on UAV's and the projected economic impact of UAV's within the next decade.
Source: Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)
This diagram illustrates the economic projections for the areas which drones will benefit most in Kansas. This diagram assumes that F.A.A. regulations are in place.
Drones in agriculture have many positive as well as negative impacts on social issues. Though drones could create a very self-sufficient family farm, giving producers more control and information on their crops, it could give more control to big agriculture companies. Currently the use of drones is not creating many solutions or problems, but in the future more social issues could arise. Many large agriculture companies could, with the use of drones, completely eliminate the family farm. If drones are able to monitor every aspect of a crop, there is no need for human intervention; unless there are stressed areas that need to be attended too. Conversely it will save product as well as money to not treat a whole crop when only certain areas need it.
Although many jobs could potentially be created in order to create a basis for working drones, some jobs may be lost as well. As drones advance in precision agriculture, many jobs will be created. Programs will need to be developed in order for producers to use the drones effectively, the drones themselves will need to be built, and people will need to be hired to teach farmers how to use them, or be available for hire to operate the drones. As the technology develops in the future, it will be interesting to see what aspects of drones are issues and what aspects are solutions.
Pros and Cons of Drone Use in Agriculture
Compared to scouting fields on foot, drones allow for a much faster way to monitor crops and collect agronomic data. Drones are also capable of detecting harmful problems such as weeds, pests and fungus, and applying chemical to individual problem areas before they get out of control in the rest of the crop. This advantage will potentially lead to less chemical use in the future, saving producer’s time and money. In addition, drones allow producers to know exact details on individual plants, which is virtually unthinkable with current technology. The fact that crop scouting can essentially be accomplished by an unmanned vehicle mitigates the need for agronomists and producers to walk through individual fields, reducing labour costs and enhancing efficiency in agriculture immensely.
Current drone regulations are put in place mainly to ensure privacy and safety in the highly concentrated urban areas. However, the advantage of using drones in agriculture comes from the low concentrations of people scattered throughout rural areas, and thus lower potential concern for safety and privacy issues. There are fewer regulations for drones that fly over private land, which makes the process of using a drone much simpler in rural areas.
The cost of acquiring a drone can be up to several thousand dollars for the producer, with the cheapest option costing roughly $2,000. In addition to the cost of owning the drone, training is another mandatory expense that producers must incur if they want to operate the drone themselves.
Uncertainties of Legislation
The current uncertainty of legislation makes it difficult for producers to know the exact restrictions that they face when using drones.
As technology continues to advance, there are virtually no limitations on what drones will be able to do to for the future of agriculture. Despite the limited use due to current regulations and restrictions, projections have already been formulated to guarantee environmental, economic and social sustainability as agricultural drones become more common throughout the sector. As producers face more and more challenges in feeding the world, efficiency is an element with room for continuous improvement. Drones have a promising future, as their core function is to increase efficiency in as many areas as possible, allowing the producer to focus on the finite details necessary to produce enough food for the growing population.
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