Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, precision farming—innovations in agriculture help farmers save money, grow more crops to feed the world, and reduce the industry’s impact on climate change. Who could imagine one of the most accessible and impactful tech additions to the farmer’s toolbelt started as little more than a remote-controlled airplane with a camera?
Drones, also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), are not exclusive to agriculture—they are found in many industries including filmmaking, environmental conservation, and police departments. In fact, anyone interested in drones can pick up small, basic models at consumer box stores like Best Buy and Staples. These remote-controlled devices are able to fly above scenes, quickly observe the earth below, and collect images.
Markus Weber, president of Landview Drones in Edmonton, Alberta, says the simplicity of the technology combined with the ease of getting started makes drones a relatively easy tech choice for a producer. The biggest draw is what drones can do to simplify farm management.
“Drones give farmers an aerial view of their crop—when you’re standing at the edge of a field, you can only see about twenty yards in,” Weber says. “It doesn’t require any more technology than just a camera in the air for a farmer to be able to understand what’s going on with their crop.”
Detecting issues such as drought, dis-ease, or pest damage is key to producing a good crop. Drones, unlike manual inspection, allow farmers to map their fields quickly on a regular basis—giving them a better chance of solving any problems in the crop. Using drones instead of heavy field vehicles also minimizes soil compaction and plant damage that can affect healthy growth.
For one Saskatchewan farmer, using a drone to scout his canola field allowed him to better understand where kochia, a common weed, was taking root. Instead of applying herbicide to the majority of the field in hopes he cleared the problem, imaging from the drone allowed him to target problem areas—meaning he sprayed only forty acres instead of the usual four hundred.(1)
Drones are not just making jobs easier—they’re also contributing to the fight against world hunger. In the Philippines, typhoons can quickly destroy farmland, and assessing the damage manually to provide support takes days; a person can only inspect seven hectares in one day. Drones, on the other hand, are able to review two hundred hectares in only thirty minutes. This allows fast assistance, quick replanting, and minimal food loss.(2)
Imaging land is not where drone use in farming ends. Specialized versions of drones can be used to spray pesticides, fertilizer, and even plant seeds. Currently, regulations in Canada prohibit the use of drones for pesticide application—but not for long.
“We are still a few years away from spraying being an everyday practice, but it absolutely will be in the future,” Weber says.
Weber says spraying with drones allows for targeted applications, using less of the product and only in the areas needed. Regions like Russia and the United Kingdom have already seen reductions in pesticide use, thanks to the precision application drones allow—meaning lower emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.(3)
It is not just chemicals either; in Zimbabwe, where drought is common, drone irrigation systems allow for efficient coverage of the crops without wasting water through traditional irrigation.(4)
“The environmental and financial benefits really do go hand in hand—you’re only applying the product where you need it. That works really well for the farmer’s pocketbook, in addition to protecting the environment,” Weber explains.
While regulations on drone use continue to lift around the world, the technology itself is on track to improve drastically over the next decade—leading to the possibility of even more sustainable farming applications. One of the most exciting advancements Weber sees in the future? “Five years from now, these systems will be completely autonomous.”
By: Ellen Cottee
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1 GrainNews—Farmers weigh in on drone benefits, 2021
2 FAO—FAO is using drones to help end hunger, 2018
4 UAS Vision—Drone Irrigation Technology in Africa