The population of Earth is projected to increase to 9 billion in 2050 from 7 billion in 2010, and the demand for aggregate agricultural consumption will increase by 69 percent. Such an increase in demand for food can only be fulfilled by improving yield and diversifying the crops grown on a particular field. For this, gathering on-field data ranging from crop health parameters to soil parameters such as temperature and moisture is critical. Analysis of this data can then be used to decide actions that can be executed through innovative technologies – such as robots or drones. A recent report by PwC estimates the worldwide agricultural drone market to be worth $32.4 billion. Such an untapped market provides a massive opportunity to players both big and small to enter the agricultural sector and develop innovative solutions.
Here, the application of drones in agriculture is envisioned not only at the execution stage but also during data acquisition and process planning.
Which type of drones are used in agriculture?
Diverse agricultural needs require the use of different types of drones. The drones used fall mainly in the following categories:
Fixed wing drone
These drones do not contain moving rotors and have wings that generate lift at certain speeds. They are capable of flying for long hours while carrying significant payloads. However, these drones cannot hover and require a catapult like apparatus to launch. Fixed wing drones are mainly used for mapping and surveillance such as mapping of farmland for insurance purposes and for generating detailed maps for precision agriculture.
Rotary wing drones operate using the thrust generated by wings mounted on rotors. They are generally configured in quad or octo rotor configurations. Rotary winged drones have a smaller flight time but are capable of hovering and are more agile in their flight dynamics. These drones are generally used in agricultural spraying, seeding and mapping.
How do drones help in the agricultural sector?
Agriculture is the largest industry in the world. And problems in such an industry can have an impact on everyone. These problems can be solved expeditiously by using innovative technologies.
There have been many instances in the past years where entire crop farms have been infested and destroyed by insects. In 2017, worms devastated 100000 hectares of maize in Zambia. Similarly, a locust attack destroyed crops first in east Africa and then in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in 2020. Such events cause huge losses to farmers and have the potential to disrupt food supply chains. Use of drones as an early warning system and as insect repellent sprayers would reduce the impact of such infestations and prevent millions of dollars of losses.
A set of drones can be positioned in the farm area, performing routine surveillance. When they detect the presence of locusts or other insects, they can beam the location of the insect cluster to the sprayer drones. The sprayer drones can be programmed to fly near the infested location and perform a spraying exercise to repel the insects and minimise damage to the crops. If this exercise were to be done manually, the damage to the crops would’ve been much more because it would take people a lot more time to reach the spot. However, this sprayer drone system would only be economical for large farms. Purchasing a multi-drone solution may not be affordable to small farmers who will have to rely on traditional techniques.
In today’s world, any business decision is data driven. Data collected from various sources using reliable methods is invaluable. The need for gathering data in agriculture can be fulfilled by the use of specialized cameras fitted onto drones. Data points such as soil temperature, humidity, nitrogen level etc. are crucial to make cultivation decisions and to devise crop rotation strategies. Similarly, monitoring crop health and taking timely corrective actions can save the farmer time and money and can also improve the yield.
Soil health can be monitored using multispectral and hyperspectral cameras that capture the nitrogen level in the soil. This data is useful in optimising the use of fertilizer in certain areas of the land. The cameras can also map the field accurately to point locations where the field is inundated. This is useful in planning strategies to utilize water efficiently.
RGB and Near Infra-Red (NIR) cameras are used to capture data points related to crop health. These cameras record the wavelength of light emitted from the object of interest. RGB cameras use the Visible Atmospherically Resistant Index (VARI) algorithm to measure the extent of crop growth by measuring the vegetation on the land. Similarly, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) formula is used alongside data acquired from NIR cameras to further determine crop health on parameters such as water stress, nutrient deficiencies, crop diseases etc.
Precision farming combines this sensor data and images with real-time data analytics to improve farm productivity through mapping spatial variability in the field. Data collected through drones combined with other data sources and analytic solutions provide actionable information that can be used to make decisions that positively affect food production.
Faster seed planting
Seeder drones are used to disperse crop seeds over the field by farmers. This is an alternative to land-based methods (such as autonomous guided vehicles) that might damage the crop. Seeder drones can also perform seeding during the night.
An AeroSeeder drone carries up to 18kg of seeds and spreads them over an area of 100 acres in an 8-hour period. It flies autonomously at a speed of 35 kmph and has an adjustable seeding rate. Seeder drones can be used in areas of labor shortage, or in order to save time of seeding. The company XAG deployed a seeder drone in Guangdong province of China to plant rice in the face of labor shortage. The drone could seed 50000 square metres per hour.
Mapping for insurance and assessment
Farms need to be protected from encroachment and natural disasters. For farmland insurance, traditional methods involve lengthy land-based surveys that are manual.
Drones can be used in the agricultural insurance and assessment sector, including in insurance claims forensics. Drone imagery is very useful in providing an accurate estimate of loss. And it can be done at a fraction of the cost and time. These surveys also provide banks and other financial institutions the reliable data to evaluate the credit worthiness of a farmer.
Companies such as Skymet are using drones to provide services for agriculture survey to insurance companies and the state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the Republic of India.
To complement their income, farmers rear animals and poultry. Drones can be very useful in monitoring the animals when they are out to graze. Drones can also be deployed to understand grazing patterns and identify over-grazed areas. High resolution cameras fitted onto the drones can capture imagery that can then be run through computer vision algorithms to identify straying animals and issue an alert to rescue them. The same drones can also be useful for cattle security during nighttime to prevent cattle theft.
The entire process of livestock monitoring can be automated by programming the drone to fly at regular intervals and capture data points. Animals can also be geo-tagged using RFID markers and can be individually monitored.
How does this affect you and me?
The advantages of using innovative drone-based solutions in agriculture extend far beyond farmers. The benefits that farmers receive increase manifold as they are passed on from one layer of the supply chain to the other.
Innovative technologies used for monitoring crop health and prevention of damage from insects will lead to improved farm yield. Thus, production cost will go down and reliability of supplies will improve. Provided the inefficiencies of distribution are taken care of this will lead to overall reduction in prices of food grains and processed foods.
The cumulative cost benefits will eventually be passed on to the end consumer. Thus, people like you and me will benefit from these innovative technologies.
It can be truly claimed that drones in agriculture affect every step of the food supply chain – “from farm to fork”.