Drones and the Potential for Precision Agriculture


As a child, my introduction to unmanned vehicles came via an episode of The A-Team wherein the protagonists were besieged inside a toy store. Surrounded by drug runners planning to burn the store down, the heroes of the show were forced to make use of the various materials at hand—conveniently including remote-controlled airplanes and model rockets—to route the drug runners outside and escape.

You may be surprised to learn that the concept of drones is nearly a century old. Properly known as UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the history of drones begins as early as World War I, although they weren't developed in earnest until the 1970s, when western militaries began to look for new ways to keep their human pilots from harm.

While we still often think of drones in terms of their military and law enforcement uses, they are increasingly transforming other industries as well. Amazon recently announced plans to launch a drone-operated package delivery service; Google is considering using drones to provide wireless internet access to remote locations; NBC used drones during the Winter Olympics in Sochi to capture new angles of downhill skiing and snowboarding events; and now, drones are on the verge of transforming agriculture.

With potato-planting season in full swing, Boeing Research & Technology, together with Oregon State University and the USDA, are using drones to monitor fields in eastern Oregon from the air, looking for moisture and nutrient deficiencies in crops. The highly-advanced imaging equipment notices details too subtle for the human eye to detect, which allows farmers to apply treatment before the crops are impacted significantly. Drones can also be used to monitor herds, as they have the functionality to detect unusual body temperatures and other conditions.

In Europe, drones were featured prominently at the Paris International Agricultural Show this past February. Just as farmers were quick to realize the value of having GPS devices installed in tractors in years past, farmers attending the show wanted to know how drones might help them target their crop treatments with even greater precision and accuracy.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit group that advocates the expanded use of drones in a variety of industries, “Unmanned aerial vehicles can fly over fields to perform crop-dusting duties, and also take pictures or video to track plant growth. Robots can also perform more delicate procedures, such as picking fruit or harvesting.” The organization also points out aerial drones are not only able to cover six to seven times more area than a tractor in the same amount of time, but because they remain aloft, they can preclude challenges like soil compaction, erosion, and crop damage.

If drones are largely adopted among farmers, the precision agriculture industry could represent the largest sector for unmanned vehicles. Already in Japan, with its challenging terrain and early embrace of robotics, 90 percent of crop spraying is performed by unmanned helicopters, according to the AUVSI.  The group projects the unmanned vehicles industry will produce an $82 billion economic impact and create more than 100,000 jobs by 2025.

David Hunt, managing director of Comex McKinnon, an agricultural supply chain management company in Ireland, is no less enthusiastic. “What is really going to change agriculture is what we can do with the data that these drones produce – we can finally digitize agriculture,” he said. Hunt added that the advanced array of sensors on a drone can measure a plant's biome in real-time, and this information can be combined with increasingly sophisticated data analytics to create very powerful decision-making on-farm.

If you’d like to discover more about the future of agriculture and unlocking the potential of drone technology, register for Alltech’s 30th Annual International Symposium coming up May 18-21 in Lexington, Kentucky.

The Crop Science session will be led by European Vice President of Alltech Patrick Charlton, and ask, “What if farmers become more familiar with piloting drones than they are with driving tractors? How can drones be best tailored for aerial spraying, enabling them to access hard-to-reach areas with greater precision than that offered by planes? How might drones facilitate our pursuit of traceability and sustainability? What challenges might drones bring with them, and how do they compare with the benefits?”

We may have mixed feelings about drones, but David Hunt argues that we need to give them serious consideration.

“If we want to ensure food security in the face of a rapidly growing population, then we need to wholeheartedly engage with new technologies like drones,” he insisted.

To register for Alltech’s 30th Annual International Symposium, visit www.alltech.com/symposium. “Join” the Facebook event to receive updates on topics and sessions leading up to the event.