August 2, 2016
by Michal Mazur
Drones have brought a number of benefits to agriculture—and their potential to impact other industries is significant.
Applications for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), used commercially since the beginning of the 1980s, have exploded in a variety of industry sectors, thanks in part to robust investment support and loosening regulations. Responding to the rapidly evolving technology, companies are creating new business and operating models.
The total addressable value of drone-powered solutions in all applicable industries is significant—more than $127 billion, according to PwC’s analysis. One of the most promising areas is agriculture where drones are expected to help meet a number of big challenges. With the global population potentially reaching nine billion by 2050, agricultural consumption is expected to increase by nearly 70 percent between 2010 and then. Extreme weather events are on the rise, creating additional obstacles to productivity.
Agriculture producers must embrace revolutionary strategies for producing food, increasing productivity, and making sustainability a priority. Drones are part of the solution, as is close collaboration between government, technology, and industry.
Drone technology will give the agriculture industry a high-tech makeover, with planning and strategy based on real-time gathering and processing of data. We estimate the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture at $32.4 billion. Here are six ways aerial- and ground-based drones will be used throughout the crop cycle:
1. Soil and field analysis
Drones can be instrumental at the start of the crop cycle. They produce precise 3-D maps for early soil analysis, useful in planning seed planting patterns. After planting, drone-driven soil analysis provides data for irrigation and nitrogen-level management.
Start-ups have created drone-planting systems that achieve an uptake rate of 75 percent and decrease planting costs by 85 percent. These systems shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing the plant all the nutrients necessary to sustain life.
3. Crop spraying
Distance-measuring equipment—ultrasonic echoing and lasers such as those used in the Lidar (light detection and ranging) method—enables a drone to adjust altitude as the topography and geography vary, and avoid collision. Consequently, drones can scan the ground and spray the correct amount of liquid, modulating distance from the ground and spraying in real-time for even coverage. Result: Increased efficiency of spraying and a reduction in chemicals penetrating into groundwater. Aerial spraying can be completed as much as five times faster than with traditional machinery, experts say.
4. Crop monitoring
Vast fields and low efficiency in crop monitoring together create farming’s largest obstacle. Monitoring challenges are exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable weather conditions, which drive risk and field maintenance costs. Previously, satellite imagery offered the most advanced form of monitoring. Drawbacks: Images had to be ordered in advance, could be taken only once a day, and were imprecise. Further, services were extremely costly and the images’ quality typically suffered on days. Now, time-series animations can show the precise development of a crop and reveal production inefficiencies, enabling better crop management.
Drones with hyperspectral, multispectral or thermal sensors can identify which parts of a field are dry or need improvements. Additionally, once the crop is growing, they allow the calculation of the vegetation index and show the heat signature.
6. Health assessment
It’s essential to assess crop health and spot bacterial or fungal infections on trees. By scanning a crop using visible light (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) light, drone-carried devices can identify which plants reflect different amounts of green light and NIR light. This information can produce multi-spectral images that track changes in plants and indicate their health. A fast response can save an entire orchard. In addition, as soon as a sickness is discovered, a more precise remedy can be applied and monitored. These two possibilities increase a plant’s ability to overcome disease. And in the case of crop failure, the farmer will be able to document losses more efficiently for insurance claims.
Looking farther into the future, UAVs could involve fleets, or swarms, of autonomous drones that could tackle agricultural monitoring tasks collectively, as well as hybrid aerial/ground drone actors that could accomplish data collection and a variety of other tasks.
So, what’s slowing progress of drones in agriculture? Beyond the barriers to widespread drone adoption in all industries—safety of drone operations, privacy issues, and insurance-coverage questions—the biggest concern in agriculture is the type and quality of data that can be captured. To address this, the industry will push for more sophisticated sensors and cameras, as well as look to develop drones that require minimal training and are highly automated.
For more on drones in agriculture and seven other industries, see our comprehensive report.