What are Agricultural Drones or Drone Farming and how are they utilized?
Let us discuss today about drone farming and importance of drones in agriculture.
Introduction to Drones In Agriculture or Drone Farming
Drones, otherwise called the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are of late being used for agricultural purposes and this is considered to be the latest development in this sector. The major role of drones in agriculture is to support evidence based planning and collecting special data. Normally drones were developed to be used in military, humanitarian relief, disaster management, etc. The use of these unmanned vehicles is extending very fast into the crop production sector. The major areas where it is being utilized are:
- Crop production
- Disaster risk reduction
- Wildlife conservation
The unmanned aerial system has the airborne portion, which is controlled by a pilot remotely situated elsewhere via a ground control station through wireless connections. The system can be programmed manually or it can also be operated automatically through programmed services. The size and shape of the drones depend on the type of service they offer. The take-off mass is a measure to classify the devices into different categories. Some common historical classifications are 2 kg mass, 25 kg and 150 kg. The configuration of the drone can be either fixed wing aircraft (vertical take-off) or landing rotary wing platforms (helicopters and multicopters).
Potential of drones in agriculture
The basic use of a UAS is to help farmers get a birds-eye-view of their crops so that they can detect subtle changes that cannot be readily identified by scouting crops at the ground level. These devices can collect multispectral images through the sensors attached to them. The images are stitched to generate spectral reflectance band, which can be utilized to calculate indexes such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), Leaf Area Index (LAI) and the Photochemical Reflectance Index (PRI)
The NDVI speaks of different biomass levels in the soil, water stress, nutrient deficiencies, pest infestation, crop diseases, etc. The information provided by the NDVI is built upon through field visits and dedicated algorithms. These algorithms help as a guide for providing fertilizer inputs to the crops. The remotely sensed data helps to speed up the process of conducting crop inventories and yield estimates. The UAS technology can also be used to document the illegal land and resource use.
Improving agricultural productivity
To bridge the gap between the current production and the demand for the future, the drone technology and advanced image data analytics can be very helpful. The image data from the drone is used to assess the health of the crops. The NDVI analysis helps in understanding the intensity of solar radiation on the crops such that they can be monitored properly. This technology helps to monitor specific plant parts for early identification of pests and diseases. To detect the occurrence of natural disaster or destruction of crops advanced geospatial NDVI products are utilized. Mapping and imaging are the two most important processes that work throughout the crop production cycle with the help of sensors.
Size of drones
The drones available in the market have different models and are normally categorized into two types based on their size:
- Small drones like the size of an insect.
- Large drones for carrying heavy loads.
Drones are also categorized on the basis of their aerial platform such as:
- Multi-rotar configuration having multiple motors.
- Single rotar like a helicopter.
- Fixed wing configuration like an airplane.
Application of drones in agriculture
The present days drones used in agriculture are medium sized, but while carrying out work with heavy loads like spraying and planting larger drones are used. Multi-rotor drones are the most used drones in agriculture sector because of their low cost and simple structure. Improvement of existing agricultural practices or processes depends largely on the versatility of drones. The most important applications of drones are discussed below.
- For soil and field analysis – 3D maps are created by the drones and are later used for the design of planting seeds and also for the generation of data types with many applications like nitrogen-level management.
- For Crop monitoring – this is done by the process of satellite imaginary, but has some major drawbacks like too costly, imprecise images, poor weather has a bad impact on the data quality.
- For water control and drainage – drones monitor the crops frequently and provide regular update for the development and improvement of crop yield.
- For Health assessment – drones generate multi-spectral images of crops that help in the analysis of health and maturity of the crops. An early detection of a bacterial or fungal infection helps in quick remedial action.
- For Irrigation – drones detect hydric stress in the farm lands, i.e. if there is any inadequate supply of water; then the infrared and thermal sensors provide the data of areas that get too little supply of water and help in quick action.
- For crop spraying – drones have the ability to adjust to altitudes and flight paths according to the topography and the geography of the region. This helps the drones to scan the ground and apply liquids with great precision. The spraying action by the drones is estimated to be five times faster than the normal spraying method.
- For Aerial Planting – planting done by the drones is a technology still under development and is considered to be an effective way of reducing labour costs during farming.
Challenges Involved in Drone Farming
Though the technology of drones has a great potential to transform the agriculture industry, there are still several obstacles for their progression beyond the small place they occupy in the market. These problems are:
Financial situation of the farmer
The agriculture industry is a low margin business for many farmers with the need for financial assistance from the government during adverse weather conditions. Drones need large investment and technical expertise to be acquired and utilized.
Quality of data captured in Drone Farming
The quality of data produced by the drones has to be of good quality so as to provide precise and accurate information. The speed of data collection and the flexibility of the drone usage are secondary parameters which are considered important only next to quality. The integration of new sensors, cameras and processing technologies can help improve the quality of data captured by the drones.
Modernising ability of the farmers
Farmers have to adapt themselves to modernize production practices so that they can earn good returns for their investments. Farmers can access the technology only if they understand how to use it with the help of digital skills and confidence. This is overcome by the manufacture of drones that have autonomous features such that farmers need not have the skills or experience to operate them efficiently.
Steps in making a map with small drones
The workflow of a small drone for mapping is basically divided into 5 steps such as:
- Design of the map and flight plan.
- Acquisition of the image.
- Processing of the image.
- Preparing and visualizing the Geo-spatial products.
- Extracting required crucial information.
Pros and cons of drone farming technology
The positive effects of using drones in agriculture are:
- Higher yields
- Time management
- Better returns on investment
- Easy to handle
- Integrated mapping
- Imaging the crop health
- Drones are failsafe (i.e. They fly back home)
- Check water efficiency and other environmental factors
The negative impact of the use of drones is:
- Flight time estimation and range
- High cost of purchase
- Laws for using such technology
- Airspace interference
- Connectivity issues
- Weather dependency
- Ability or skill to use the tool
Conclusion of Drone Farming:
In India, due to land size, utilization of drones in agriculture is limited. In areas where huge plain land are present, drone farming would be the future.
Read: Growing Cowpeas.