The technological advancement of unmanned aircraftσ or drones and the reduction in production costs have led them to become more available to a larger buyers group for research, professional or entertainment reasons. One of the most appropriate uses is agriculture and, in particular, precision farming. Drones can work for the benefit of agriculture, increasing agricultural production, improving competitiveness and making it profitable. The drones are equipped with an autopilot using the GPS and a standard point-and-shoot camera controlled by the autopilot. Software on the ground can stitch the aerial shots into a high-resolution mosaic map. Proper use of drones results in saving resources and inputs, supporting the sustainable development of the rural enterprise.
Drones can provide farmers with three kinds of detailed views. First, observing a crop from the air can reveal irrigation problems up to soil change or parasiticides and fungal attacks that are not apparent at the eye level. Secondly, airborne cameras can receive multi-spectral images, capturing infrared and optical spectrum data, which can be combined to create a view of the culture that points out the differences between healthy and problematic plants in a way that they are not visible to the naked eye. Finally, a drone can see a crop every week, every day, or even every hour, with the ability to create a moving time series presenting crop changes and revealing points of trouble or opportunities for better crop management.
Throughout the cultivation cycle, drones contribute as follows:
- Ground and field analysis: Drones can produce accurate 3-D maps for preliminary ground analysis, useful for designing seed patterns.
- Planting: Through drones, planting systems are launched that spur pods with seeds and nutrients into the soil, thus achieving a 75% absorption rate and a 85% planting cost reduction.
- Crop spraying: By means of distance measuring equipment, a drone can detect soil morphology and, avoiding collisions, spray the correct amount of liquid in real time, for uniform coverage, with increased speed and effectiveness in reducing the amount of chemicals that penetrate into groundwater.
- Crop monitoring: The monitoring challenges stem mainly from the large crop size and are exacerbated by the increasingly unpredictable weather conditions, while increasing the risk and maintenance costs. Receiving satellite imagery has been an option to date, but it has proven costly, to some extent inaccurate and with pre-order requirements. Nowadays, animated time series images can show the exact growth of a crop and reveal production shortcomings, allowing for better crop management.
- Irrigation: The use of hyperspectral, multi-spectral and/or thermal sensors can determine which parts of a field are dry or need improvements. In addition, as soon as the crop develops, the drones allow for the calculation of the vegetation index, which describes the relative density and health of the crop, and indicates the thermal signature, i.e. the amount of energy or heat emitted by the crop.
- Health Assessment: Plant health assessment is facilitated by scanning a crop, using both visible and near-infrared light, so that drones can recognize which plants reflect different amounts of green light and light NIR, producing multispectral images that track changes in plants and indicate their health. A quick response can save an entire orchard. In addition, once a disease is discovered, farmers can apply and monitor corrective actions precisely. These two possibilities increase the ability of plants to overcome the diseases. In the event of crop failure, the farmer will be able to record the losses more effectively for insurance claims.
The cost of acquiring an agricultural drone ranges between $ 1,500 and $ 25,000, depending on the range of operations offered. Market research is available here and here. The basic parameters of evaluating a drone in relation to our needs are (a) observation and recording functions, (b) data analysis capabilities, (c) species and condition separation, (d) status evaluation and (e) designing and applying patterns and cultivation strategies. According to scientists specializing in this technology, the long-term integration of drones as a method of optimizing cultivation leads to money savings.
Analyzing the data collected by drones is an important issue as there is a difference of opinion as to who the data belongs to: the drone operator or the farmer himself. Although there are clearly cases of data that are purely public goods (eg weather conditions, soil quality, etc.), there are data (eg crop type, plant health, planting density, etc.) related to the producer. The commercial exploitation of the data can provide additional revenue to drones businesses, corresponding to businesses that trade mailing lists or customer data, simultaneously leading to a moral issue. Open data may prove to be a one-way solution to the issue, against time-consuming negotiations and complex legal interpretations, as the use of precision farming data only has positive external economies of scale. Additionally, an industry of precision, open and personalized farming software can be created.
All of the above-described capabilities are still inaccessible, due to cost, for small-scale farms, resulting in unequal distribution of benefits, unless public or private bodies are involved in the collective service of small farms, thereby reducing the per farmer or field cost.
- Ο Φιλελεύθερος (2016), Drones στη γεωργία: Λιγότερη εργασία, μεγαλύτερη παραγωγή, http://archive.philenews.com/el-gr/oikonomia-kypros/146/339181/drones-sti-georgia-ligoteri-ergasia-megalyteri-paragogi
- Technology Review (2014), Agricultural Drones: Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage., https://www.technologyreview.com/s/526491/agricultural-drones/
- Technology Review (2016), Six Ways Drones Are Revolutionizing Agriculture, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601935/six-ways-drones-are-revolutionizing-agriculture/