A drone flying over a flock of sheep

Agricultural drones: the new farmers' market

More and more drones are skittering through rural skies, taking snapshots of the fields and providing farmers with various data about the soil and crops. Are they really necessary or just the latest gadget craze?

Ryan Kunde sits in his home on the outskirts of Sebastopol in southern California, sipping Pinot Noir. It comes from his own DRNK Winery, with its 100-metre cave burrowed alongside vineyards and a golf course. At 33, he’s the fifth generation of the Kunde family, well known in the Californian wine industry for producing high-quality wine for over a century. He runs the business with his wife Katie and her parents, Dale and Nancy. “Hence the label,” he chuckles. “DRNK - for the four of us: Dale, Ryan, Nancy, and Katie”. However, Kunde is the first in his family to delegate some responsibilities to an assistant. “Spidey is great. He really helps me to sample the vineyards much, much better,” he says.

Spidey is oblivious to the praise, and he also won’t ask for a pay rise for all his hard work. His official name is X8 and he is a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and with its several propellers it looks and buzzes like an oversized hornet. Built by US drone maker 3D Robotics in Berkeley, California, Spidey hovers over Kunde’s vineyards day in and day out, taking high resolution images.

Over the past several years, Kunde’s drones have helped him to refine his sampling of the vineyard, pinpointing from high above where exactly the grapes have ripened to perfection, and where the soil has plenty of water - or not. “When trying to differentiate these zones on the ground, it is much more difficult to tell where they begin and end,” he says. “Using image analysis, I can quantify the exact area of these different growing regions.”

Kunde is on the forefront of farmers ditching the traditional, long-established approach to agriculture in favour of new technology, and that’s much needed. By 2050, Earth will be home to an estimated 9.6 billion people, and they all must be fed.

A few years back, autonomous flying machines were mainly associated with the Pentagon fighting wars in far-away countries. Today, fleets of drones can be found in agriculture, monitoring crops and even beginning to spray fields with pesticides. Just recently, a New Zealand farmer used a UAV to round up his sheep.

Unaffordable for many just a few years back, a drone able to fly for at least half an hour and sporting a camera for aerial imaging can now be bought for around $1000 or less. By 2020, in the US alone there will be some 20,000 UAVs scurrying through the sky, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts. And according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade group that represents makers and users of drones, about 80 per cent of the commercial market for drones will be for agricultural use. One big beneficiary could be farmers in developing countries, says Steven Brumby, co-founder of Descartes Labs, a firm that analyses remote sensing data, because they “need to cover very large areas as cheaply as possible”.

Agri-informatics and big data

In the past, when farmers had smaller fields, they knew which areas had enough water, or were ready to harvest, just by walking around their land. However, to stay connected with today’s much bigger parcels of farm land, they need precision agriculture, with crop management that relies on GPS and big data analytics to increase yields and profits while cutting down on pesticide and water use.

Many tractors are now guided by GPS, to plant perfectly straight rows of crops. Farmers can monitor the progress of their driverless tractor on a tablet at home. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, estimates that data-driven prescriptive planting could increase global crop production by about $20bn a year, or about one-third the value of 2013’s US corn crop.

Drones are the latest addition in the toolkit of precision farming, collecting the key datasets used to make agronomic decisions. Right now, they are still new, and regulations how to use them vary from country to country. But farmers everywhere are waking up to the potential benefits, and “in a few years, drones could be a common sight above British farms,” says Alex Dinsdale, sales manager at Ursula Agriculture, a company that delivers crop intelligence from drones. But are they really useful, or just a technology gimmick?

“I remember driving the vineyards with my grandfather as a child, we would constantly stop, get out, and look at the vines. Right up close,” says Kunde. “He would take off a leaf and look at the undersides, show me, throw it down, then choose another.” At other times groups of men would use magnifying glasses to inspect the leaves, looking for potential pest problems in the vines. Fast-forward to today, and much of that work “could have been helped by advanced tools and aerial imagery,” he says.

Flying over his vineyards, the drones may look like toy planes or weird big beetles, but they are equipped with a GPS-powered autopilot, bristle with sensors, and take very high-resolution aerial images using multi-spectral cameras. The result is agricultural intelligence that’s much more precise than satellite data and comes at a fraction of the cost of manned surveillance flights, which some farmers used in the past.

Drones also work even when the clouds are low, “which is critical for imaging crops at key times in their life cycle,” says Brumby.

The drones geo-tag the images and wirelessly transmit them, along with all the data, to a computer or tablet down below; software creates fully geo-referenced, high-resolution or even 3D maps that help the farmer analyse the crops and see where the plants are doing well or struggling. “The constant data flow can be fed into a mathematical model to deliver predictive information that helps the farmer to take more effective decisions on resources needed by each micro-segment of the field, estimating the best time to harvest, how to deal with a parasite attack, and so on,” says Mascia Foschi, co-founder of AeroDron, an Italian start-up that offers imaging survey services with drones.

This way, insect infestations are spotted early, and moisture levels are measured with precision. The drones can even pinpoint where fields may need fertiliser, more seed, or a specific weedkiller, regardless of the type of crop, be it corn, oats, soybeans, wheat, cotton, or grapes in a vineyard, says Ernest Earon, president of drone maker PrecisionHawk.

The maps compiled by drones are then converted into a ‘treatment prescription’ for the field. This in turn is directly uploaded to a tractor, which then delivers the required amount of water, fertiliser or pesticide.

Drones can also be a boon when disaster strikes, says Earon. “Imagine you’re a farmer with 500 acres of mature corn. A bad hailstorm hit the night before, and you’re standing with your insurance adjuster trying to figure out the proper claim cheque,” he says. “If you’ve ever been in a mature cornfield, you know it’s nearly impossible to walk through eight-foot-?tall stalks and see anything.”

Usually, farmers and insurance agents will negotiate based on the severity of the storm, past experience and what they can see from the bed of a pick-up truck, and such negotiations take time. “Now, farmers have the ability to stand with their insurance agents, throw up a plane, let it intelligently survey the area and report back the exact amount of damage for the claim,” says Earon. “Very quickly, there is an assessment and the cheque is issued - saving time, and ensuring that the farmer has the funds to recoup their losses. And the agent can quickly move on and help other farms that were affected.”

The sudden popularity of drones among farmers has three main drivers, says Matt Wade of senseFly, a drone maker based in Switzerland. The first is technological: agriculture-specific drones are becoming easy enough to operate without any piloting skills. They are also getting relatively low-cost, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

The aircraft isn’t the whole cost, though.Toby Waine, a remote sensing expert at Cranfield University, explains: “As a farmer, you can get a cheap drone and take some nice photos, but to make measurements, you need better quality cameras with near-infrared capability for vegetation monitoring. And you’ll need supporting agronomic data - such as soil, water and weather - for calibration of crop models to make informed decisions.”

The second driver is awareness, as word spreads about the productivity benefits. In the UK, for example, the government even gives grants to farmers who want to purchase a drone.

Finally, it’s the evolving regulatory situation. While just a few years ago a drone flying over the countryside was a rarity, now they’re becoming so common that countries increasingly move to more pragmatic regulations to manage commercial use.

For Kunde though, other factors play a role, too. He lists competition, resource scarcity, and “just plain fun and curiosity”.

Many modern agricultural drones are fully autonomous, programmed to follow a certain trajectory. They are equipped with tools like accelerometers, gyroscopes, a compass, and hardware to avoid obstacles. The autopilot does the flying, computing everything from the take-off and flight to the landing - aiming for maximum coverage of the field, while getting all the necessary data. “Users are never required to manually generate or plot mission paths or build flight plans based on weather conditions. Instead, the aircraft will automatically adapt to its conditions to collect the highest quality data,” says Earon.

Drafting regulations

There are still speedbumps ahead, though, before drones will be adopted industry-wide. The main problem is regulation. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority has been leading the way in drawing up rules for fliers, says Steve Robins, head of digital content at Heliguy, a UK-based supplier of multi-rotor drones. Today, anyone who wants to fly a camera drone for commercial purposes must be qualified and approved by the CAA, and the UAV has to be within the visual line of sight of the operator, or ‘remote pilot’ (within a 500m radius and below 122m). Eventually, the regulations are likely to be harmonised across Europe, says Robins.

The approval procedure is “not a challenge, but it is a lengthy process that farmers and companies really have to commit to, in order to gain the correct permissions,” says James Fleming of Geo-4D UAV, a UK aerial mapping and surveillance firm. Alternatively, farmers can use the services of a company like his, to “increase the yield and make more money without having to invest upfront”.

In the US, the FAA has adopted a much more cautious approach. It’s illegal to fly a drone for commercial purposes, and agricultural drones are sold to individual farm operators for ‘personal use,’ putting “a lot of burden on farmer operators to learn how to use them well,” says Brumby.

In February, though, the FAA proposed new rules to govern commercial drone use, provided the machine is kept in sight at all times during flight and the operator has passed an ‘aeronautical knowledge test’ and has been vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. The proposal now must undergo public and federal review, which could take months. Once that happens, “the demand for drones in the States is expected to soar,” says Robins.

In a recent report, AUVSU estimated that the legalisation of commercial drones in the US could deliver economic benefits worth more than $80bn over the next decade.
In Asia, China and Japan are heavy drone users too. In fact, Japanese rice farmers have been using robotic RMAX crop-dusting helicopters for nearly 30 years.

Other challenges are the need for longer flight times and greater autonomy of the devices, as well as “ensuring that a drone fits neatly within the existing precision agriculture workflow, meaning its data output files are compatible with existing tractors and suchlike,” says Wade.

Brumby notes a lack of software to convert aerial imagery effortlessly into actionable information. “In many ways, it’s much easier to use [often] free public satellite data at large,” he says.

But Dinsdale of Ursula Agriculture is certain that soon, data businesses and drone operators will take precision agriculture to the next level, predicting yields with greater accuracy and further cutting environmental losses. This way, a lot more farmers can be like Kunde, and - unlike his forebears - use the combined power of drones and analytics to compete with big agro businesses.

Picture credits: Rex features corbis, senseFly, PrecisionHawk, 3D Robotics, Ursula Agriculture, Lehmann Aviation, AgEagle, HoneyComb

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