The Benefits of an Aerial Perspective — How Drones are Transforming the Agricultural Industry

In the agricultural heartlands, a revolution is taking flight—not with the rumble of tractors, but with the whisper of drones. The cost comparison alone is staggering—a robust mid-sized tractor plows through the bank at $500,000, while a drone, offering the same toil, hovers at a relatively modest $150,000. But for Jim Fry, a sixth-generation farmer with soil in his veins and the future in his sights, the leap from diesel-guzzling behemoth to the drone is about more than just economics. It's a conscientious revolution; fewer emissions, less soil compaction that chokes crop vitality, and a precision in spray application that's laser-sharp in comparison to the old, indiscriminate methods. In this new age of agriculture, drones are not just tools for surveying; they are the vanguard of a farming evolution, rewriting the rulebook on efficiency and sustainability from an uplifting vantage point. Fry’s transition is a testament to this epochal shift—where the buzz of drone propellers cutting through the air heralds a cleaner, greener, and more bountiful harvest season.

 

Exploring a drone’s potential

Unmanned aerial systems, also called drones, can be programmed for a variety of uses in the agricultural industry. This includes land imaging, soil monitoring, collecting soil and water samples, surveying topography and boundaries, and troubleshooting — to name just a few. Farmers can also use drones to monitor crop and livestock conditions, allowing for a remote bird’s eye view without having to go through the field themselves. Not only does this save time, but can allow for a variety of other uses to come into play — such as when it comes to fertilizer and pesticide application. 

 

According to Tennessee Tech, technology such as photogrammetry and GPS can allow a drone to create a map of fields and pinpoint exactly where each plant is, while a multispectral camera can work “to measure near-infrared reflectance in order to assess the health of the individual plant.” Such data can be used for fertilizer applications, according to Michael Nattrass, assistant professor of agronomy and soils at Tech’s School of Agriculture, effectively allowing producers to maximize the efficiency of fertilizer application while reducing the amount applied. However, the benefits regarding the use of drones can go much further — Nattrass points out that they can come in handy for aerial applications of pesticides, which can work to improve sustainability. “I get so excited talking about drones because I believe they will play an integral role in the future of agriculture, from crops to cattle,” Nattrass said. 

 

The case for increased safety

Along with the many services that drones can provide, safety is a major benefit — especially when it comes to the dangers of the job. Some of the most dangerous jobs in the country involve careers such as construction that are primarily dangerous due to their nature. Falls, slips, and trips, as well as the potential of getting struck by a falling object are just a few types of injuries and accidents that can occur on a construction site. Working in agriculture is no different, with the nature of the job involving risks such as pesticide exposure and accidents involving machinery. In fact, tractor rollovers are the leading cause of fatalities in the industry, accounting for more than half of all farm-related deaths, highlights the University of Missouri Extension. To further underline the danger, one in 10 tractor operators overturns a tractor in his or her lifetime. Furthermore, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a rate of 23 work-related deaths per 100,000 workers in the agricultural industry — a statistic that is seven times higher than the national average for workers. Implementing the use of drones, on the other hand, can allow farmers to observe crops without the need of taking the tractor out, while using the technology can help minimize pesticide exposure by allowing farmers to spray remotely.

 

Real world examples

With the increased prevalence of drone use, there are several initiatives and real world examples that are working to further highlight innovative uses for the technology within the agricultural sector. A technology services company by the name of Taranis is just one worth noting. Describing its mission as providing “A.I. powered crop intelligence solutions,” Forbes notes that the company is using sophisticated and cost-effective drone technology in order to gather season-long images of growing crops. According to Forbes, Taranis collects images of each contracted field every 10 to 12 days, totaling to four to six passes per season. The images feature sub-millimeter resolution, resulting in incredible details. “They can track infestation of insects, invasions by weeds, crop nutrient deficiencies, stress or any number of other good or bad developments on the ground,” Forbes explains. As of 2022, Taranis monitoring was deployed on three million acres of farmland, and they currently have a network of hundreds of operators by working with the gig-economy sector of independent drone piloting. 

 

Drone use in agricultural settings can also be found in Moldova, where such drones are increasingly used by farmers. With the help of drones, DRON Assistance (a company that is financially supported by UNDP Moldova and the European Union) provides intelligent services to Moldovan farmers — including pest and weed management as well as the mapping and monitoring of agricultural land. In the village of Onitcani, for example, half of a wheat field (of 73 ha) will be treated with herbicides using a drone while the other is completed with the use of a sprinkler and tractor. Increasing the profitability of crops is a priority, hence the experimentation. “We want to make a comparison. Last year we treated the corn sow seeds, and the results were just right. That is why this year we are testing the wheat field,” explains administrator Alexandru Zolotco.

 

The use of drones in an agricultural setting can bring a variety of benefits, from the more efficient application of pesticides and fertilizer to mapping and monitoring farmland. As a result, the technology can not only work to increase aspects like job safety within the industry, but it can serve to enhance efficiency as well. 

 

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