Agricultural drones need time to take root

In the process of disrupting agriculture, airborne drones are experiencing growing pains. Fortunately, a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers could help them take off

Targeted pesticide and fertiliser deployment is just one area in which drones can make agriculture simpler and more efficient

The world’s population is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050. Consequently, agriculture needs to keep pace. In safeguarding future generations, farmers now face the gruelling tasks of maximising output, minimising prices and, in the process, protecting the environment. Technology will be essential in reaching these goals. In fact, it is already being innovated to suit. Orange-picking robots with pneumatic arms are shaking trees in Florida, and high-nutrient super vegetables have been grown in Israel, while improvements in land surveying are also driving change.

Enter agricultural drones, which are nowadays well suited for data collection. In farming, they are simply known as ‘ag drones’. They come in all shapes and sizes, and offer a variety of different solutions. For example, the 700g eBee RTK is a popular choice for surveyors that want to cover a lot of ground fast, as it makes 3D maps by taking pictures with its downward-facing camera. These images can then be used to estimate crop volumes. Meanwhile, heftier drones like the Terra4 Quadcopter perform entirely different tasks, flying low and spraying pesticides. Similar models are even fitted with cameras that scan for insects before spraying, processing data at lighting speed.

The main advantage of agricultural drones is that they can increase yields

“The end goal is a fully autonomous drone that could take off, fly itself, take pictures across a known area of farmland, upload the information into the cloud, process in the cloud and provide you a map the next morning that says ‘this is what you need to do’”, said Dr Jonathan Aitken of the University of Sheffield. Steps have already been taken in this direction in Japan, where drones work increasingly with self-driving tractors, feeding them information about the landscape.

Promising signs
The main advantage of drones is that they can increase yields. For one, farmers can get a better idea of soil quality by surveying their land before planting. “We can take detailed footage of how fertile the ground is, and check for areas where irrigation systems are not working”, said Andrew Linford-Garcia of Droneworx. After planting, drones can help with crop maintenance. For example, drought and dryness can be detected with thermal imaging cameras, while chlorophyll can be measured by filtering ultraviolet rays. Fixing problems is also more cost-effective when specific issues are identified. “Drones allow you to avoid putting things like fertiliser and pesticides across everything in order to get your benefit”, Aitken explained.

Drones are also more efficient when it comes to livestock management. At present, they mainly use thermal imaging cameras to spot cattle in bushes and buildings. Individual animal tags are also read from the skies. “We can take a high-resolution photo of [a tag] from 100m away, shooting in 6k with a 20x optical zoom”, explained Linford-Garcia. In the future, it is easy to imagine that each animal could be tagged with an RFID chip that is readable from a similar distance.

Present obstacles
Given the pace of technological change and the grand designs of ag drone developers, only a few things stand in their way. The first is the set-up cost. Roughly $1,000 can buy a drone that straddles the professional and consumer markets. That said, farmers might have to pay much more for higher-end models, depending on their needs. For example, the high-quality eBee RTK would cost a 3D mapper $25,000. Further expenses then come as a result of regulations. In the US, the combined cost of registering as a drone pilot, taking the aeronautical knowledge exam and buying drone liability insurance can be up to $1,200. That also presumes you pass the exam. “There’s quite a high skill level needed among the personnel required to operate the systems”, said Aitken.

A second obstacle is data management. A single day’s flying can gather up to 60GB of information. An obvious bottleneck in terms of moving this data around is the dearth of high-speed web access in the countryside. An even bigger problem might be a simple lack of technical know-how. The information gathered by drones needs proper analysis in order to be used to its fullest. Here, user-friendly apps can only help to an extent. Really, farmers will need to dedicate lots of resources to data analysis if they want to work with drones efficiently.

Considering these prices, hurdles and skill requirements, the costs of mapping and monitoring crops can outweigh the benefits for individual farmers. Consequently, many prefer not to handle drones themselves. Instead, they often turn to outside specialists – agricultural service providers – who already have the necessary skills and equipment. The cost of a day’s surveying from specialists that offer data collection and processing is around $1,000. For farmers, this is much cheaper than buying their own drones, since mapping and surveys are only needed a few times a year.

Still, this cost-saving solution could be undermined by a more fundamental problem: some people just don’t like drones. This is partly rooted in data protection concerns. If information regarding yields, plant health and biosecurity were to be leaked online, a farmer could effectively lose their trade secrets

$1,000 can buy a drone that straddles the professional and consumer markets, but farmers will pay more for higher-end models

“Drones are very new and they’ve got a lot of bad press. There’s often bad news with collisions and near misses… a lot of people are wary of them, which really they shouldn’t be”, said Linford-Garcia.

Green shoots
At present, for many in the industry, the obstacles are substantial. Older farmers have been particularly slow to embrace drones, Linford-Garcia said. Most of Droneworx’s customers are young and are more adaptable to new technology. Typically, they are entrepreneurs who were not born into agriculture, but rather transitioned from other industries and now manage multiple farms. If autonomous drones do end up surveying every field and herding every sheep, it is these individuals that will most likely have spearheaded the change.

Big business will also lead the way, as the hefty set-up costs make more sense for large landowners. Each drone will have more acres to cover, which will justify its price. Moreover, the savings that it will bring with more targeted pesticide and fertiliser deployment will start to add up more more quickly. Such businesses would also find it more feasible to invest in dedicated data analysts or even full-blown automation. Ultimately, this could mean that external experts are bypassed entirely. In the process, drones will have killed-off an industry almost as quickly as they created it.

If full automation someday occurs, drones will have been important in making it happen. In doing so, they will increase productivity, potentially making food available for millions more people. For now, agriculture is in a transitional phase, as drones create jobs and a new generation finds its feet. It should also be remembered that these new farmers are following in the footsteps of the pioneers before them, which were the first to use laser beams to conduct land surveys and to hook their sprinklers up to computers. Now, as then, agriculture is being pushed to adopt new productive technologies thanks to population pressure. When drones eventually overcome their growing pains, they will help to resolve existing supply problems and realise their potential as a force for enormous good.

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