UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES (DRONES): 6 WAYS OF REVOLUTIONIZING AGRICULTURE

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been one of the most sensational revolutions which stride across the field of business while remoulding everyday life as well as making marked changes in society. Drones – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, have had their commercial applications addressing many challenges from way back in the first half of 1980. An average of over $127 billion has been ascribed to the application of drones in industries across the world, while Global Market Insights projects the approximate market size for agricultural drones to cross the $1 billion by 2024.[i]

With the ever-increasing human population, which is approximately estimated to reach a whopping 9 billion by the end of the first half of the 21st century, it becomes imperative to undertake revolutionary procedures for various purposes such as enhancing food production, decreasing wastage, checking for diseases, improving food production along with ensuring sustainability. While experts stipulate an overall increase of 70% in consumption of agricultural products, challenges in the form of extreme weather conditions will be prevalent within the same period.[ii]

Hence, drones can serve as a solution partly, while requiring collaboration among industries, leaders of the IT sector, and governments across the globe. Certain types of drones have been specifically designed for agricultural purposes like Agras T16 from DJI, PHX Complete System from Senetra, eBee SQ from senseFly, to name a few.[iii]

Photo by Thomas Griesbeck on Unsplash
An agricultural drone spraying over fields

Types of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Drones can weigh approximately 20kg and because of their small size, humans cannot board on them. Drone operation can be carried out directly, where they are controlled by remote (wireless), or autonomously, where the vehicle is auto controlled to follow certain routes using data obtained from GPS.

Drones are classified into 4 groups:

  1. Fixed-wing: simple drone, easy to control, and provided with a propeller that facilitates movement in the forward direction.
  2. Rotary wing: most widely used drone, provided with 4-8 rotors and appearing like a miniature helicopter. Because of its small size, it is easily portable with lesser susceptibility to involuntary failures.
  3. Tethered vehicle: as the name implies, this commonly used drone is generally tethered onto wires thereby obliterating the usage of a remote controller. 

Lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles: they are also tethered to wires, but comprise of blimps and crafts which are helium-filled. They are not much used in farming.[iv]

Application of UAVs in farming

Drones were initially employed to spray various chemicals, however, nowadays application of drones has extended to carry out navigation and recording using various devices like infrared cameras, capturing high-resolution images of cropping systems, watering the stressed areas of fields, helping in farming sustainability, and also improving the yield and profitability of farmers.

Raw data are collected by drones which are then subjected to translation into practical information using algorithms. Some of the applications are summarized as follows:

  1. Analyzing the soil and field: drones can prove to be especially useful by producing high-resolution 3-D maps. They are provided with the software (flight planning) that will help to make motorized flight paths allowing it to automatically take pictures with the help of sensors and camera and with the aid of GPS, the timing of shots can be determined. These help to plan the patterns of planting seeds. Following these, drones can also be used to provide data on water availability and nitrogen-content in the soil.
  2. Cropdusting: can be used for spraying a precise quantity of liquid by scanning the ground and monitoring the distance from the ground. Drones such as Yamaha RMAX can carry large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers for spraying the crops. They allow spraying of crops to be carried out with greater efficiency and precision as compared to that of a tractor. Hence this allows for the reduction of penetration of harmful chemicals through the soil and into the groundwater, along with reducing the risk of pesticide exposure to laborers.
  3. Monitoring of crops: some of the largest hurdles faced by farmers during irrigation include large areas of cropland and inefficient monitoring systems. Such problems are further aggravated with unprecedented weather variations which lead to an increase in expenses of field maintenance and risk of crop losses. Field elevation information can be useful because they help to determine drainage patterns along with allowing the identification of wet or dry areas and thereby aiding in better irrigation practices.[v]
  4. Planting of seeds: several forestry industries now use drones for efficient seed planting practices. It is one of the lesser-used applications of drones but has the potential for widespread usage in this field. Highly elevated areas can be planted with the help of drones which would help to reduce the risk of endangering the lives of workers. An average of about 40,000 trees can be planted per drone.[vi]
  5. Irrigation using drones: drones that are provided with thermal sensors, or with multi-spectral sensors can help in the identification of areas of fields that require better management and irrigation practices. While the crop has started growing, drones can be used for calculating vegetation index and also allows the detection of heat or energy which is emitted by crops. Data obtained from multispectral sensors can show leaking pipes that were used for irrigation.[vii]
  6. Assessing the health of crops: it is a downright necessity to check on crop health at regular intervals so that early detection of fungal, viral, or bacterial diseases can be done to reduce crop losses. An initiative was taken by the Indian Government to carry out a research project using drones for agriculture. The main aim of the project (called “SENSAGRI: Sensor-based Smart Agriculture) is to use Hyperspectral Remote Sensors on drones for checking on soil health, the type of damage, its severity and spread, forecasting crop loss estimates, and also ensuring compensation for the same.[viii]

Conclusion

The agriculture sector being one of the most encouraging sectors, faces challenges due to prevailing weather conditions, quality of soil, availability of water, and their proper application. Hence, a proper solution is the usage of drone technology. The most prominent applications of drones include monitoring of crops, analysis of soil and field, irrigations, and disease forecasting.

  [i] Exploring agricultural drones: The future of farming is precision agriculture, mapping, and spraying.

[ii] Mazur, M. (2016). Six Ways Drones Are Revolutionizing Agriculture

[iii] Agricultural drone. (2020).

[iv] Hajdu, I. (2018). Powerful Role of Drones in Agriculture.

[v] Ahirwar, S., R. Swarnkar, S. Bhukya, and Namwade, G. 2019. Application of Drone in 

Agriculture. Int.J.Curr.Microbiol.App.Sci. 8(01): 2500-2505.

[vi] Agriculture, D. Croptracker – Drone Technology In Agriculture.

[vii] Using drones in agriculture and capturing actionable data [output examples] | Wingtra.

[viii] Drones to monitor crop and soil health in India soon – Geospatial World. (2016).

Written by Biotechture Staff Writer, Chandrayee Dey.

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