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Farmers Now Benefit From Agricultural Drones for Increased Productivity

Farmers can now have a secret weapon to increase their yields and reduce crop damage: agricultural drones. These small, easy-to-use aircraft, equipped with cameras, are relatively cheap, at less than $1,000 each, and are proving to be a real breakthrough. This is because such close monitoring of crops can improve water usage and the management of pests. This is part of a new trend in farming known as precision agriculture.

The key players in the manufacture of these drones are 3D Robotics, Yamaha, and PrecisionHawk.  One of the farmers currently taking advantage of this technology is Ryan Kunde, a winemaker in the Sonoma Valley, north of San Francisco.  Ryan is a drone operator as well as a farmer, one of a new generation of crop producers using what was formerly military aviation technology to grow better grapes, by way of using pictures from the air. This is part of a wider trend of using robotics and sensors to import big data into precision agriculture.

Drones to these farmers are simply low-cost aerial camera platforms: they can be either miniature fixed wing planes, or more usually quadcopters, and other small helicopters with multiple blades. These aircraft come equipped with an autopilot with GPS, and a standard point-and-shoot camera, controlled by the autopilot. Ground-based software is able to piece together the aerial images into a high-resolution mosaic-style map.  Unlike a traditional radio-controlled aircraft, which has to be controlled by a pilot on the ground, in this (Kunde’s) craft, designed by 3D Robotics, the autopilot does all of the flying itself, from the auto-takeoff to the landing.  Its software does the planning of the flightpath, which aims for maximum coverage of the vineyards, and it controls the camera for optimisation of the images, to be analysed later. This type of low-altitude view, (with a range of  few metres above the crops to around 120 metres) gives farmers a perspective which they have seldom experienced before. By comparison with satellite images, it is far cheaper and gives higher resolution.  Another advantage is that the aircraft fly below the clouds, so the view is unobstructed and available at any time. It is also far cheaper than crop imaging using manned aircraft, which can cost around $1000 per hour.  Farmers can buy these drones outright for around $1000 each.

The latest groundbreaking advances in technology have paved the way for these drones, which are remarkably small, easy to use and cheap: the technical specifications include small GPS modules, tiny MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) sensors, exceptionally powerful processors and a range of digital radios. All of these components are constantly becoming smaller and cheaper, thanks to their use in smartphones, and the way in which that particular industry has monopolised amazing economy of scale.  

Drones can provide farmers with several different types of detailed views, revealing potential problems with the crops and opportunities for better crop management.  It is part of a growing trend towards more data-driven agriculture.  There have been a great number of innovations in agriculture over the years, all aimed at growing more food with less labour, and the implications of this are very far-reaching. By the year 2050 it is estimated that the world’s population will be around 9.6 billion, all of whom need to be fed, which means that the central input-output problem of farming can largely be addressed through this kind of technology. More and better-quality data can reduce the usage of water and pesticides, which means that what began as military technology could become a major green-tech tool of the future. Future generations of kids could grow up quite used to having robots flying over farms, like miniature crop dusters.


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