People are often surprised when I tell them that I work in agricultural technology. It seems they have this image of the farmer in his overalls moving hay bales that becomes disrupted by the idea of technology. Americans are passionate about humble agricultural beginnings and the idea of robots doing the work of farm people is difficult to picture.
When I mention drone technology, there is a sense of fascination. While they may be a hot commodity with the everyday consumer, we sometimes overlook the impact they are making in the agricultural industry. Juniper Research recently estimated the agricultural industry will account for nearly 48% of commercial drone sales in the coming year. In the field, drones are capable of a mix of agricultural activities. They easily monitor crop productivity, moisture levels and accurate spraying of pesticides.
Visualizing a crop from the air exposes potential irrigation problems, pest infestations or soil erosion. Infrared sensors can tell the difference between a healthy plant and an unhealthy one. And because drone technology is relatively inexpensive to operate, time loops can be set up to show changes in the crops. A farmer can identify potential trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.
Drone technology is much cheaper than crop imaging with a manned aircraft. Some growers pay $1,000 an hour! Farmers can buy the drones outright for less than $1,000 each. The advantage is that they are small, cheap, and easy to use. Advances in technology have allowed for tiny MEMS sensors (accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers, and often pressure sensors), miniature GPS and radio transmission technology and capable minute processors. Farmers can run the drones on autopilot without investing in aerospace technology. Open source information is available on sites such as diydrones.com.
Drones allow those in agribusiness to use less water, pesticides and fertilizers. More efficient use of resources has less environmental impact and is more cost effective. The manufacturing cost per acre on a farm ranges from $400–800 per acre. You need information to be able to tell how can you reduce production costs, increase yields, or both.
A key piece of the equation is what you do with the information that is collected. Metrics and data are only useful if you utilize the information. Again the investment in more technology comes into play. Automation of pesticide, fertilizer and water systems help the grower cut reaction time to possible trouble areas in their yield. Agronomy software, such as AgroGuide, can import soil sample sites and test results electronically for use in creating nutrient equations and recommendations, saving time by reducing manual processes. Producing accurate blends through integration with select automated blenders for hands-off operation will assist in improving speed and resource time. Generating custom blends using a least cost or least price approach will reduce labor and operator costs.
The face of agriculture is changing. The speed at which information is collected and shared is key to a businesses competitive edge. Drone technology offers that edge. The landscape is changing rapidly. The information and intelligence collected by drones offer a way to keep up.