The popularity of drone technology is soaring higher every quarter. The total number of drones produced this year is expected to reach 3 million – marking a ~40% YoY increase over 2016. Revenues from the usage of drones is climbing rapidly too, and according to a recent Gartner report, will go beyond $11 billion by the end of 2020. Agriculture has emerged as one of the most important fields for the application of drone technology, with the focus squarely on refinement and advancements in precision farming standards. The CAGR of the agricultural drone market is estimated to hover around 28% for the next 4-5 years – with its value nearing the $3000 million mark by 2021. In what follows, we will highlight on some latest trends and points of interest related to farming drones and their uses:
Smarter crop planting
Drones have the capacity to generate big savings for farmers. A classic instance of this is related to the task of planting seeds/crops on fields. Automated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly being used to place nutrients as well as pods/seeds in the soil – making the overall process much quicker (compared to manual planting), and bringing down the average expenses of planting by a whopping 85%. Planting drones can deliver uptake rates of up to 70%-75%, and are ideal for ensuring better sustainability of crops.
Evolution of farming drones
Till as late as 2015, the functions of drones in agriculture were limited. Most drones were simplistic imaging devices, and were used to take hi-res photos of farmlands. The aerial images were referred to by farmers to get an idea of crop health, weeding requirements and other basic farming activities. Things have changed a lot over the last few quarters, and the latest agricultural drones are all about delivering ‘actionable intelligence’ to users. NIR (near-infrared) sensors are being used to create accurate crop health maps, by tracking the green vegetation mass around crop areas. Also known as NDVI (Normalized Differentiation Vegetation Index) maps, these reports help in identifying areas where there are chances of yield losses. Aerial photography is still an important feature of farming drones – but the latter are currently used for many other purposes as well.
Types of drones for agriculture
Drones have come a long way from being mere recreational gadgets, with mediocre flight planning power and lowly payload capacities (range also used to be a factor). At present though, drones are finding extensive adoption in many fields of business, with agriculture being one of the most important domains. Farming drones can broadly be classified under two heads – multi-rotor drones and fixed-wing drones. The former is particularly useful in scenarios where low-altitude flying is required to capture high-quality crop photos and related information. Fixed-wing UAVs, on the other hand, do not require prior landing/takeoff plans, can start and end flights vertically, and are generally much easier to manage.
The cost advantage
One of the main drivers of the proliferation of drone technology in the agricultural sector has been the extremely competitive cost levels. The average farmer can purchase many types of smart farming drones at sub-$1000 levels – which is considerably cheaper than hiring manned aircrafts for crop photography (the hourly rental rates of aircrafts are likely to be higher than the price of drones). The images captured by drones are typically of higher resolution than those taken with the help of satellite imaging tools. Drones experience minimal interference in their flight paths too – thanks to the fact that they move under the clouds. On both the quality as well as the cost fronts, agricultural drones offer significant advantages to farmers and investors.
Depending on their precise nature and objective(s), the height at which farming drones fly varies from 50 meters to 100 meters. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that UAVs cannot move beyond the edge of line of sight (in the US, special permits might be required for drones flying at a height of >120 meters). In addition, there are other national-level rules and regulations that the drone operators have to abide by. The average wingspan of an agricultural drone is around 1.2 meters, and its weight varies in the 1.5-2.0 kgs range.
Components of farming drones
Agricultural drones follow automated flight paths (artificial intelligence drones are, by definition, ‘unmanned’). Open-source programs are typically used to autopilot these drones – and they have several other important components. At the core of farming drones are cutting-edge microelectromechanical (MEMS) sensors – which receive/transmit data to and from the farmlands on a real-time basis. Different types of sensors are used – ranging from regular pressure sensors, to the more advanced gyrometers, accelerometers and magnetometers. To improve locational accuracy, powerful GPS modules are built-in, while high-capacity processors are used to power the drones. Small digital radio(s) are generally attached to agricultural drones as well.
Facilitating smart irrigation
Wastage of water is a point of concern for practically every crop-grower. The efficiency of traditional irrigation system is hardly ever more than 40% or 50% – implying that an alarming amount of water is wasted during every crop-cycle. Farming drones do their bit to improve the standards of irrigation in fields. Users, with the help of the thermal and multispectral sensors of these drones, can pinpoint the areas of the fields that have to be watered (heat signature is collected, along with information on the energy generated by crops). As already mentioned earlier, crop vegetation indices are also calculated by the drones – to keep farmers informed about the general health of crops.
Distance of flight
The range of flight of a drone varies with its size and built-in features/purposes. Fixed-wing agricultural drones generally have more coverage capabilities than the multi-rotor models – with the former requiring less than an hour (~50 minutes) to cover 12 square kilometers. The average flight times of fixed-wing drones are higher as well. Spot-checking entire farming lands is time-consuming and often inaccurate when done manually (particularly for large fields where simple perimeter checking is insufficient). Drones have enough in-built flight capacities to perform micro-surveillance of all types of agricultural fields – quickly and way more accurately.
How do agricultural drones work?
We have already talked about the key components of farming drones. Let us now quickly get an idea of how these UAVs function. The flight path of a drone is created by the user on a ground control device (a laptop or a smartphone). The line of flying – indicating the total area that has to be scouted/surveyed by the drone – is drawn on a map (Google Maps), and the information is transferred/uploaded wirelessly from the ground control tool to the UAV. The drone follows this flight path, and the user has the option to perform manual overrides in case any sudden emergency crops up (for instance, an aircraft appearing in the drone’s path). The takeoff and landing of AI-based farming drones are, of course, autonomous and can be monitored remotely.
Uses of drones in agriculture
The primary objective of using drone technology in agriculture is pretty much straightforward: increasing overall output levels and enhancing crop quality standards, while maintaining input requirements and optimizing all available resources. Apart from crop planting and smart irrigation, drones have already started to be used to tasks like crop monitoring/scouting (through high-quality time-series animations), crop health assessment (with NIR sensors as well as visible lights for tracking plant health and detecting sicknesses), in-depth soil analysis (with the help of 3D maps) and crop spraying (distributing liquid chemicals evenly on the farmlands, after real-time ground scanning and distance calculations). Drainage systems can be monitored with drones as well, while tracking the health and grazing habits of livestock is also a possibility. Farming drones also help users draw up detailed prescription maps to manage variable rate crop prescriptions. Yield loss risks are minimized as well.
Main challenges for farming drones
For all its merits, agricultural drones are still new – and some uncertainties still remain over their utility and efficiency levels. Farmers need to keep themselves updated with the latest changes and updates in the drone regulations of their respective countries. Correctly deploying drones in a farm also represents a challenge, while the overall costs of integration have to be managed too. Another serious point of concern is the distinctly ordinary battery performance of most farming drones (which puts their coverage abilities under a cloud). What’s more – unless an agricultural drone actually offers end-to-end problem detection, information transfer, detailed analytics and prescriptive action suggestions (as opposed to simple aerial photography only), neither investors nor end-users would be willing to check it out. Drones in agriculture have evolved greatly, but there is still a long way to go.
Hardware and software
Between 2017 and 2024, the volume of shipments of farming drone hardware and software will grow at a CAGR of more than 13%. The value of the drone hardware market will reach $200 million (up from ~$60 million in 2016), while that of drone software will be more than $50 million. One of the main factors behind the relatively faster rate of growth of the hardware segment is the higher costs of the device components. While multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones are both popular, shipments of hybrid drones (primarily used for covering large agricultural fields) are also increasing at a steady rate.
Different views offered by drones
The type of information generated by drones can be customized to suit the exact requirements of the modern-day ‘smart farmer’. Broadly speaking, three different ‘views’ can be obtained from farming drones. The first view takes care of repeated monitoring requirements of a crop or a particular section of the field, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. The second (and perhaps the most common) view deals with regular crop monitoring from above – for tracking crop health, identifying problems (soil dryness, plant diseases, fungal attacks, etc.), and suggesting satisfactory remedial actions. The other view of farming drones is all about distinguishing between healthy and sick plants with the help of multispectral images (which combine data from visible and infrared spectrums). All the drone views and services are available on-demand (unlike most satellite imaging techniques), near-real-time – and high on quality.
Drone are user-friendly
While they bring in technological innovation in a big way to farming techniques, agricultural drones are typically very easy to manage. These UAVs can be seamlessly integrated in the crop-monitoring routine in farmlands, the operations and controls are simple (and becoming even simpler as the drone technology develops further), and deployments can be done promptly, on an ‘as-and-when-required’ basis. The sheer range of services that farming drones can deliver makes them highly valuable for users – and in most cases, there are no reliability or safety-related concerns either. The upfront investment is not exorbitant, which adds to the convenience of the farmers. Agricultural UAVs, when optimally deployed, can also lead to hefty savings – justifying its already reasonable cost levels.
Note: The cost of drones with many highly advanced capabilities can be as high as $3500/ €3000. The immediacy of the services of agricultural drones is a big advantage.
15. USA at the forefront
The United States has a healthy lead in the worldwide market of farming drones. Last year, one-third of the total revenue generated from drones in agriculture came from the US alone. Countries in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) are also reporting rapidly increasing adoption of farming drones in particular, and precision agriculture/smart agriculture in general. In the European markets too, agricultural drones are increasingly finding favour. Chinese company DJI – the company whose first farming drone raised a staggering $75 million – is the undisputed leader, with nearly 37% share in the American drone market. Trimble Navigation, AeroVironment, GoPro and DroneDeploy are some of the other biggies involved in making agricultural drones. The space is getting more and more competitive.
Thanks to the enhanced water-resistance of farming drones, they can be used in practically all types of weather conditions (there is an outside chance of heavy rains distorting drone images though). Their value lies in the ability to add a dedicated ‘what is happening right now’ layer to on-field monitoring – ensuring that farmers are always kept in the loop. Agricultural drones typically save time and money of users, and learning to use them is not much of a challenge – provided that adequate training is available. Smart agriculture is becoming more data-driven than ever before…and drones can indeed play a mighty important role in taking farming standards to the next level.