Whether you call them UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), Drones, or something less polite – people are more familiar than ever with them. We’ll call them drones, and we’re not talking about the remote-controlled toy kind – we’re talking about the flying robot kind. They have sensors (GPS and more), can be given a Flight Plan (instructions on where to go), and can follow that plan autonomously while carrying out other instructions – no human pilot required. Many high-end tractors are already in service with this kind of automation and we’ve even seen automated harvesting assistance. But flying drones are small and they don’t plant seeds or pull weeds, so what exactly do they have to do with agriculture?
There are certain things that drones are very good at, and there are things in agriculture that are important but troublesome to do or get. Some of these things overlap, and in those spaces is where a budding industry has arisen.
Let’s cover what drones can offer and what growers can use, then dig into what is out there and happening over some fields right now.
These Things are Important to Farmers, but are Limited or Troublesome
Confirmation: Verifying that plants are growing where and when they should, and checking this as early and often as possible.
Early Detection of Problems: Detecting areas of poor growth and crop damage as early as possible, limiting impact and maximizing the chances of doing something about it.
Fertilizer Planning: A crop will never grow completely evenly, and choosing where to put fertilizer and how much to use based on plant density and health (instead of spreading it uniformly) can save significant money. This is called Variable Rate Application and anything that helps it get done more accurately saves money and increases crop yield.