Drones are doing everything in agriculture from aerial imaging to fighting global mega pests

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BioCarbon Engineering technician prepares the UAV for the seeding demonstration at Ellerslie site in Edmonton.

Drones might be seen as pests by Gatwick Airport traffic control, but increasingly farmers are beginning to see them as pest-killers.

This is one of many uses drones have in agriculture. One obvious use is for aerial images, which has led to its take-off in the consumer market. But this same use is making it popular in the agriculture sector.

Drones take the hard work out of planting

European start ups such as HummingBird Technologies and Delair offer aerial imaging for precision agriculture.

One of the most radical ones is British start up BioCarbon Engineering which stated its goal is to plant 500 billion trees by 2060. Its drones fly 3m above the ground and drop two seeds per second.

It is targeting areas affected by logging and natural disasters such as bushfires. Beyond this it can also monitor the growth of seeds. Greening Australia is one of the organisations in partnership with BioCarbon.

Drones can also seek out weeds that humans either cannot or take lengthy periods of time to discover.

Beyond just being reactive, drones can also monitor crop conditions on an ongoing basis. In July, Iowa-based Rantizo won the right to conduct drone-based agricultural spraying and provides solutions to the entire Midwest.

Founder Michael Ott said this could also solve labour shortages that come at the same time food needs are booming.

“Soon there will be 9 billion people in the world but fewer and fewer are working in agriculture,” he said. “We need ways to create more food with fewer workers, so we have to automate and use new technologies like drones.”

He noted his company was popular among a wide variety of agriculture players. “We’ve had interest from wildflower seed producers, hemp growers, commodity growers, berry farmers, vineyards and others,” he told Commercial UAV News last month.

Bug-fighting

Another thing drones can do is fight pests and one pest in particular is causing big problems right now.

The fall army worm has invaded more than 80 crop varieties in over 100 countries since 2016. In 2018 alone it caused $US4.6 billion in losses. Developing countries, including Zambia and Vietnam, have been terribly hit with farmers lacking expertise to deal with sudden infestation.

These creatures can destroy a crop field in hours, fly 1,000km in one night and lay 1,000 eggs in its life. Chemical spraying has been the traditional way to resolve this but it is time consuming and exposes farmers to the chemicals themselves.

One Chinese company, XAG, has developed a drone that does the job en-masse. It does so using 30 per cent less peptides and 90 per cent less agricultural water. It has been tested in the Guangzi province and this growing season killed up to 98 per cent of larvae.

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