Everything You Need to Know About Agriculture Drones
Who uses agriculture drones?
Agriculture drones are not the same drones that casual users purchase for hobby flying. Because of the type of sensors they are equipped with and the type of software required to process the data they gather, they are much more expensive and specialized than other types of drones. Agriculture drones are generally used by two very specific groups:
- Farmers who are using the drones to monitor their own land
- Service providers who farmers can hire to fly the drones for them
Read on to learn all about the uses of agriculture drones, why they’ve become such an important part of the farming industry, and the different types of equipment and drones available for farmers. What are they used for?
Agriculture drones have two main functions: They are used for the application of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to crops. Farmers use drones to apply these liquids at a high rate of accuracy and precision and to have direct control over their spraying operations. The most common use of agriculture drones, however, is to take high quality images of a farmer’s land to aid in what’s called precision agriculture. Precision agriculture refers to the practice of using drones and other advanced technology to develop a plan for prescriptive planting. That is, to determine where to plant seeds and how to fertilize and harvest those seeds to yield the greatest possible output for the farm. Precision agriculture aims to allow the farmer to stay one step ahead at all times and to proactively take action to optimize his or her operation. According to IBM Research
, to allow the farmer to be proactive, precision agriculture collects and utilizes data on a number of different aspects of a farming operation, including:
How are drones used in precision agriculture?
- Soil temperature and quality
- Air temperature and quality
- Crop maturity
- Equipment labor costs and availability
Quite simply, drones have become one of the easiest, quickest ways to obtain high quality, geo-tagged images of crops. The images returned by agriculture drones will tell the farmer important information about:
How the collected data is used
- Plant height
- Plant health
- Plant count
- Presence of nutrients, disease, weeds
- General information about the geography of the land (presence of holes, ditches, hills, etc.)
After the drone’s flight is over, the hundreds of high-resolution images that it collected need to be organized and indexed. To do so, many farmers use agronomy management systems. Most of these, such as Pix4D, Data Mapper, and Trimple, are cloud-based processing services that will extract the useful data from images and return that data to the farmer. That data will help the farmer to create prescription maps. Prescription maps are used to make proactive decisions on when to plant, when to fertilize, and when to harvest for the best possible results. The maps can even be exported directly to application machinery (such as sprayers), resulting in a faster, more accurate application of the necessary sprays and, in turn, cost savings. Agriculture drones are appealing to farmers because, for surveillance of smaller amounts of land, they are much cheaper to operate than the alternatives available to take high quality images (like manned aircraft and manned satellite surveillance). Farmers can also determine exactly which parts of their land they’d like to survey and exactly when they’d like to do it without having to schedule a flight with a third party. It puts the farmer completely in the drivers seat when it comes to collecting the data they need to run their farm. And they aren’t just used by crop farmers. Livestock operations may use drones to monitor the movement and behavior of their herds and collect important information about their animals. Different types of agriculture drones
There are two main types of drones, and they both have pros and cons to consider before deciding which one to purchase: Fixed wing drones have two fixed wings that extend on either side of the drone. These drones can fly faster, higher, and longer (up to 10x longer than multi-rotor drones). They can also carry more weight, which means that they can often be equipped with more equipment and sensors than multi-rotor drones. One major drawback of fixed wing drones is that they are much more expensive than their counterpart, the multi-rotor drone. They also don't handle as well. To that end, they require more space to take off and land and more space for transport and storage. Multi-rotor drones are generally less expensive and much more maneuverable, meaning that they access small, tight spaces much more easily than fixed wing drones. They are also easier to use. As noted above, they won’t fly as long (most only about 15-30 minutes) or as far as fixed wing drones, so they’re best suited for scanning of small areas that may require quick, precise movements in flight. If a farmer is torn between which type of drone to purchase, they may decide to buy less expensive models of each. That way, they can use the fixed wing drone for long flights to monitor large amounts of land, and the multi-rotor drone if they’d like to take a look at a specific area in which they believe there is an issue of some sort. How imaging works in agriculture drones
Most agriculture drones use imaging that monitors the visible light (VIS) and near-infrared light (NIR) reflected by crops. Crops will reflect different amounts of light depending on how healthy they are, so by monitoring, recording, and indexing this data, the drone imagery can tell the farmer a lot about the health of their plants. If the imagery begins to show a change in NIR and VIS light reflection, the farmer knows that action must be taken. Imaging equipment
As you may notice via a quick browse on the internet, there are many different kinds of agriculture drones available, and there are also many different kinds of sensors and cameras for those drones. The cheapest sensor that you can use with your drone is a simple high-resolution camera (such as some GoPro models). These cameras will capture the VIS reflected by crops (as mentioned above), and many high-resolution cameras can also be equipped with filters to capture NIS. There are also other more advanced (and expensive) sensor options that you can use with your agriculture drone. A multi-spectral imaging sensor, for example, will allow you to capture aspects of your land that are impossible to capture with other sensors, such as dry or wet patches in the soil. A LIDAR sensor is another possible addition. It uses lasers to analyze reflected light to measure distance and land masses with extreme precision. Top agriculture drones
There are a number of both fixed wing and multi-rotor agriculture drones available on the market today. Most agriculture drones come ready-to-fly and they are equipped with the software, hardware, and sensors that you’ll need to operate them. Here are two of the top drones available:
Is it worth it to invest in an agriculture drone?
Altura Zenith—this multi-rotor model can fly autonomously along pre-planned flight paths and can be launched and landed with the flip of a switch. Its versatile platform allows users to easily switch out sensors based on desired usage, and its multi-rotor design makes it quick and easy the maneuver.
DJI Agras MG-1—multi-rotor drone designed to apply liquid pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides to crops in an efficient, precise manner. This drone can carry up to 10kg of liquid at a time and can cover 7-10 acres per hour. The advanced system automatically adjusts its spray based on flying speed to ensure even distribution.
If you want to survey your land and capture an accurate image on the health of your crops, it’s likely that investing in an agriculture drone will pay huge dividends in the long run. As mentioned above, other options for land surveillance, such as hiring a manned aircraft, are much more expensive unless you’re planning to survey a huge amount of land. If your farm fits into the largest contingent of existing U.S. farms—the “small family farm” category, less than 231 acres—then it’s much more economical in the long run for you to purchase and operate your own drone. In addition to the economic benefits, other pluses to owning an agriculture drone are:
- They take high quality, precise images.
- They allow you to get an image of your entire farm, not just the crops that you can see from the road or the perimeter.
- You can use the drone whenever you want, meaning that you can monitor your crops more frequently for a greater likelihood that you’ll catch a problem quickly.
Farmers understand that a problem that starts small can potentially lead to huge setbacks in their operation, so being able to monitor crops as a whole on a day to day basis goes a long way in ensuring a successful operation. How to get started with drones
It’s important to note that anyone who flies an agriculture drone must have a Remote Pilot Certificate. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) views all agriculture drone use as commercial drone use. That is, there are no amateur agriculture drone pilots; they are all used specifically for business purposes. So, whether you’re flying the drone or you’re hiring someone else to do it, the pilot must be certified. If you do decide to bring a third party in to survey your land, it’s your responsibility to ensure that they have the proper certification to do so. Always file a flight plan
It should also be noted that other aircraft may have to share the same airspace as agriculture drones, so it’s always a good idea to file a flight plan with your local airport before you or someone else operates a drone over your land. Drone insurance
As with any other commercial equipment that you purchase, it’s a good idea to insure your drone. The price of insurance will depend on where you live and what type of drone that you’re flying, but it’s likely that having insurance on your equipment will save you money and a lot of headaches in the long run. This is especially important since you’ll likely be flying your drone in areas where other people may be. Legal issues
With the increase in drone popularity has also come an increase in laws related to drone usage. Most of these laws vary by state and most revolve around privacy infringement (something that you likely won’t have to deal with if you’re flying a drone over your own private land). Either way, if you’re thinking of purchasing a drone, it’s a good idea to do some research on exactly what laws and regulations regarding drones exist where you live. Protect your data
The data that’s collected by any drone surveying your land is very valuable to you, but it may also be valuable to other groups like county officials or land surveyors. That’s why, if you decide to use a third party to collect data or process data, you should make sure that you have a legal contract signed beforehand stating that you and you alone own the information that’s collected. That way, the service that you hire won’t be able to sell information about your land to other interested parties. So, is it the right time for you to invest in an agriculture drone?
Agriculture drones are at the forefront of advancements in farming and they are a great investment for farmers looking to optimize output and capitalize on the information that this new technology provides. With drone popularity increasing and more and more companies getting in on the game, it’s likely that the equipment and software that makes these machines so powerful is only going to get better. If you’re looking to yield the best possible results from your farming operation, you may want to consider investing in an agriculture drone.