Drones in agriculture


Drones a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are taking over. They are used nearly in all parts of our lives. Be it secret military operation, border patrol, search and rescue, or taking a family photo, or even pizza delivery, drones can do it all. It seems that one of a few factors restricting the use of UAVs is local legislation, that protects privacy, protects airspace etc.

One of the most promising uses of UAVs in civil life is in agriculture. Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that it is the agriculture that UAVs will have the most impact on. It is estimated that by 2025 the income from UAV use in agriculture will reach 75 billion dollars. This will involve new job creation and process optimization.

The use of drones in farming in general can be narrowed down to two main functions: transport and monitoring.

Drone as a working tool of a modern farmer. Photo – Drone.UA

First, one applications is spraying the fields with e.g. pesticides. Additionally, drones are used for urgent deliveries of medicine, chemicals or spare parts to inaccessible areas.
Second, the monitoring application of drones is much broader. Depending on the equipment UAVs have a wide range of possibilities for agricultural producers as well as institutions controlling land use etc. Most frequently for the purpose of agriculture monitoring the drones are equipped with photo cameras recording in the visible spectrum, or sometimes NIR-modified cameras are also used. These allow recording in both visible and near infrared spectra, which is used to evaluate the vegetation state by, for example, calculating NDVI as one of the popular indices.
However, when choosing a camera with IR capabilities, one should be careful about the right characteristics and manufacturer. As the specialists at Pix4D indicate, modifications to common cameras for sensing in IR, although being much cheaper and obtainable, give much more complex results in terms of interpretation as compared with specialized radiometric cameras. The accuracy of this kind of output is hard to assess, additionally they can change with time.



UAV capabilities depending on equipment used. Photo – Drone.UA

Application of thermal imagers that sense in the thermal range additionally enables a prompt creation of soil heat maps. This is very important for farmers during sowing and/or managing irrigation. At present there is little experience in application of thermal imager enabled UAVs in agriculture, however, this technology is developing fast and its wider use is just a matter of time. Drone-thermal imager combination is available at the market and is used for military purposes but also for hunting or archeology.
Our experience states that recording even with an ordinary camera with fine resolution allows for good results for crop state assessment and yield forecasting.

The economic impact of UAVs in farming depends on the purpose of their use.

For agricultural producers:

  • fuel saving by optimizing the equipment’s routes
  • minimizing expenditures of seed material, fertilizers, water for irrigation
  • maintaining and increasing yields through timely sowing and harvesting, differentiated according to the needs of crops in a particular field, fertilizing, irrigation, carrying out pesticides treatments
  • preventing crop loss due to poorly conducted operations, damage by diseases and pests, theft, etc.
  • optimizing production costs, improving the quality of production planning;
  • yield forecasting and potential profits forecasting.

For insurance companies:

  • avoiding risks when insuring agricultural producers.

For state regulatory institutions:

  • obtaining reliable crop yield forecasts;
  • preventing loaning of fraud producers;
  • tracking that land and environmental legislation is followed, timely prevention of violations and penalties application.

To sum it all up, at present application of drones in agriculture has many prospects. These are, however, constrained by UAVs’ limitations.

Main drawbacks of drone application in farming will be soon.