Drones for Sustainable & Precision Agriculture

By Ben Gross | February 14th, 2023

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As the global population reaches 8 billion and continues to rise, the demand on the world’s food producers has also increased dramatically. Farmers around the world must continue to optimize their methods of production and increase crop yields, while at the same time being mindful of how agricultural practices can impact upon climate change and socioeconomic conditions.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and UAV communications can play a vital role in modernizing agricultural operations, and the market is growing fast. According to various reports, the agricultural drone sector is currently worth around US $1 to 2 billion, and projected to grow to US $5 to 10 billion by 2030.

Enhanced safety and labor savings

Drones can cover a multi-acre swath of farmland in much less time than a human worker on foot, and are also much faster than most ground vehicles. They are much more convenient to deploy than aircraft or helicopters, with lower operational footprints and costs.

Another critical advantage to drone usage is the increase in worker safety. Tasks such as seeding and spraying are often carried out using large tractors and other vehicles. Operator fatigue while handling such large pieces of equipment can lead to accidents. By replacing these vehicles with automated drones that never tire, significant injury can be avoided. The use of drones for pesticide and fertilizer spraying also reduces worker contact with these often highly hazardous chemicals.

Precision agriculture using aerial insights

Due to lack of data, crop cultivation is often undertaken with a blanket approach – all areas get equal amounts of irrigation, fertilizing, pesticide application, or other essential operations. Precision or smart agriculture, on the other hand, uses data-derived insights to let farmers know exactly which areas of particular fields or crops need to be targeted. This allows them to cut down on wastage and tackle problem areas before they get worse, thus increasing yields and therefore profits.

Precision agriculture data is typically gathered using a number of specialist sensors such as multispectral cameras. These sensors capture reflected radiation from the sun not only in the visible wavelengths but also in those that cannot be seen by the naked eye, such as near-infrared (NIR). The reflectance, or ratio of incident light to reflected light, of vegetation can be mapped and linked to a number of health characteristics such as nutrient levels, water stress, and the presence of pests. Armed with this information, farmers can apply pesticides, irrigation and other measures exactly where they are needed.

Aerial cameras can also be used to gather insights using regular visible imagery. These insights include livestock surveys, damage inspection of buildings and machinery, and determination of plant populations and spacing issues.

While aerial imagery can be gathered by aircraft or satellite, these methods have some downsides. Satellite imagery may be days old, as up-to-date images cannot be provided on demand due to satellites not always being directly overhead. Many drone systems can be launched within minutes to gather the required information, and can also fly much closer to crops than either manned aircraft or satellites, meaning that the resulting data will be provided at a higher resolution.

Drone usage for sustainable agriculture

If left unchecked, large-scale industrial farming can wreak havoc on soils, groundwater, the atmosphere and other aspects of the environment. Sustainable farming practices make an effort to meet food production requirements while minimizing these harmful impacts, and ensuring that future generations can continue to use the land to satisfy their needs. These practices include:

-Planting a variety of crops, and rotating different crops through a particular field year after year to promote soil health

-Applying mechanical and biological methods of pest and weed control, while keeping the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides to a minimum

-The use of hydroponic and aquaponic systems to deliver nutrients to crops through water instead of soil

Much like the wider field of precision agriculture, sustainable agriculture benefits massively from drone-gathered remote sensing data, which allows farmers to optimize their strategies and gain valuable feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

 

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BVLOS flights for long-distance and large-scale farming operations

Unmanned aerial vehicles are already changing the face of agriculture, and uptake of the technology is sure to increase further over time. Agricultural drones have particular potential in larger areas of farmland, where the ability to cover vast areas in a single flight will provide significant gains in efficiency.

One important factor in the adoption of agricultural drones for large-scale farming will be the introduction of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Currently highly regulated, BVLOS drone flights will allow thousands of acres of land to be scanned, seeded or sprayed without the need for drone pilots to constantly reposition themselves in order to keep their aircraft within sight. This will allow these large farms to be tended to in a more timely manner, and will also drive down the costs of agricultural drone operations.

The regulatory landscape surrounding BVLOS flights is slowly beginning to solidify. In November 2022, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded a waiver to drone operators Aerial Vantage that allows them to fly BVLOS in order to collect precision agricultural data on a large ranch in Florida. More authorizations are sure to follow, provided that operators can successfully convince aviation authorities of the safety of their proposed solutions.

Reliable communications for agricultural drones

One of the most important components in the development of a BVLOS drone platform is a reliable communications solution. Agricultural drones may cover large areas and come in close proximity to farm workers, livestock, buildings and other obstacles, meaning that operators must be in contact with the drone at all times to ensure safe operations.

Elsight’s Halo is a proven communications system for drones that uses advanced AI-powered cellular bonding technology to aggregate up to four separate data links from multiple providers. This makes it highly suited to BVLOS agricultural drones, which may pass through varied communications environments in the course of covering large areas of land.

Halo automatically monitors datalink conditions, seamlessly switching to a backup link if the primary connection is lost. It also dynamically manages bandwidth according to the needs of the operation, making it essential for long-range missions that may need to transmit large amounts of data.

Halo has been successfully utilized in a wide variety of commercial UAV applications, with thousands of hours of flight time under real-world conditions. The lightweight and compact hardware can be easily integrated into a variety of fixed-wing and multirotor drone platforms.

Book a discovery call

To find out more about how Elsight can help you equip your BVLOS agricultural drones with a robust communications capability that provides assured connectivity with close to 100% uptime, please get in touch.

FAQs

In what ways are drones used in agriculture?

Drones are used for a variety of different agricultural tasks. These include remote sensing applications such as data gathering for crop monitoring. as well as physical tasks such as seed planting, pesticide spraying, and watering.

How far can agriculture drones fly?

The maximum range of an agricultural drone will depend on a number of factors, such as its propulsion method, size, and weight. Fixed-wing commercial drone platforms exist that can cover tens of kilometers in a single flight and stay aloft for several hours, and would make a good base for a long-range agricultural drone system.

How efficient are drones in agriculture?

Increases in efficiency depend on a myriad of factors, vary by application and can be hard to quantify. An example given by drone analytics experts Iprosurv claims that drone-based planting systems have been developed that achieve an uptake rate of 75 percent and decrease planting costs by 85 percent.

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