Using Drones to Keep Your Crops Competitive

April 10, 2017

Agriculture has always relied heavily on innovation to move forward. As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have become increasingly mainstream across North America, modern agronomists are looking up and using this new air-borne technology in the sky to become more productive in the soil.
Some believe that technology can provide a leg-up on the competition. However, technology can be expensive. Thankfully, more affordable and practical tools are beginning to present themselves.
Once regulated strictly for military use, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones have become the latest implements being adopted by farmers to better monitor crop conditions, using a bird’seye view to see what their fields are doing during the growing season and potentially bringing big benefits for their business.

“The world is changing and society is changing with it… If you, as a company, are not willing to change, you will be replaced.”

Not your run-of-the-mill consumer drone models, the UAVs currently being piloted in the agriculture industry are high-tech, top-of-the-line, information-gathering aircraft. A drone’s ticket price is generally determined by the requirements of the growers and whether they might need a fixed-wing model or quad-copter, or one that is automated or piloted, and what their desired image quality might be; all of these factors—and more—will affect the cost.

Without damaging the soil, UAVs provide a low-altitude view, from just a few metres above the greenery up to a ceiling of around 120 metres. Drones give a field perspective most growers cannot obtain unless they have access to a manned aircraft or satellite service. And while satellites do provide excellent imagery, drones can offer the same or similar real-time, true colour or multispectral crop imaging at a fraction of the cost.

 Photographer: Knoell Marketing

Photographer: Knoell Marketing

One of the more established applications for drones in agriculture is in variable rate applications of fertilizers, where the field is mapped with regard to a biomass index, leading to a task map for the driven vehicle that then applies the fertilizers.

“The drone can then indicate the areas on which to apply more fertilizer, where yield potential is higher, and where the plants can actually take it up instead of overdosing the entire field—with corresponding costs and environmental impact for the grower,” says Dr. Joris IJsselmuiden, researcher of agricultural robotics and automation of the farm technology group at Wageningen University & Research Campus in the Netherlands. “It is easy to see how the drone’s advantages can strongly apply to this application.”
In spite of their benefits and growing popularity, there are challenges in using a drone. Although they are improving, drones are limited in a number of ways, from a relatively short battery life to having a limited payload. Weather also plays a significant factor in UAV operation, since quality imagery can only be gathered during clear or evenly overcast conditions, where the usefulness of the shot will not be compromised by the shadows of passing overhead clouds.

While drones can ease some of the effort in monitoring a field, activities such as drone programming and operation, image collection,and image processing takes time—and the subsequent decisions based on UAV images will still tend to take hours if not days to be made. In the end, drones are another tool in the toolbox and will not eliminate the need for a grower to have their feet firmly planted on the ground.
“The growers who are using drone imagery are improving their ability to pinpoint a suspect area in the fields and go directly to the area to discover what may be going on in the crop,” says Terence Hochstein, Executive Director at Potato Growers of Alberta. “A drone may speed things up, but you will still need to get your boots in the dirt and go for a walk.”

That being said, there can be a risk for growers in not at least considering UAVs for their business. As drone technology becomes increasingly more accessible and applicable over time, the sight of these machines buzzing over fields will be more commonplace. As is the case with most any innovation within the horticulture sector, early adopters and adapters will be inclined to remain on the cutting-edge, while resisters fall behind.

“The world is changing and society is changing with it,” says IJsselmuiden. “Remember that companies like John Deere and Lely are now—or soon will be—as much data analytics companies as they are hardware suppliers. If you, as a company, are not willing to change, you will be replaced.”

For those growers interested in adopting drones for use in the field, it is recommended to first speak with those who are currently using them, check over a jurisdiction’s specific regulations, and also consider what the ultimate purpose of their drone would be. Does the grower simply want a picture of the crop as is, do they want an eye-catching YouTube video for promotion, or are they after high-quality, geo-referenced images that they can ultimately use to improve cropping systems? Will one drone be sufficient to do the job efficiently, or is the crop area so large that multiple drones are needed?
Growers should also be aware that there are many specialized companies already in the market that hire out drone services and that they might not need to invest in a huge UAV purchase themselves. This type of arrangement could help a grower’s bottom line.

“While it may be the farmer’s desire to own a drone, it may turn out to be more practical and cost-effective to hire UAV services from a consulting firm,” says Darren White at Delta Ag Services, a Manitoba-based independent crop consulting company. “They can then see if the imagery ends up being truly valuable for their operations.”