The future of drones in Agriculture
Ag Drones — Future and Present
by Wendel Meier • 2 August 2014
No longer can farmers plant seeds from last years crop, pray for rain, and expect to feed the world. Things have changed, mostly for the better. My grandfather plowed with mules, killed weeds with a hoe, fertilized with manure, harvested by hand and produced about 60 bushels of corn per acre. About average for the time. Then came the age of mechanization. Farmers now plow with tractors, plant GMO seeds, kill weeds with herbicides, fertilize with liquid nitrogen, harvest with combines and produce about 150 bushels of corn per acre; more than double the previous yield. Informed sources estimate that farmers will have to double their yield again by 2050 to feed the world. That requires precision farming, and precision farming requires data. You can’t manage what you don’t understand, and you can’t understand what you can’t see.
That is why farmers need the UAVs to image their fields. Now they use satellites and manned aircraft; neither is efficient. Farmers need to image their fields often, and on their schedule, in order to manage fertilization, irrigation and apply herbicides and pesticides to affected areas quickly before damage is done or the infestations spread. Only UAVs can provide this data in a timely and cost effective manner.
Down on the Farm with Drones, the Vision.
After breakfast the future farmer strolls out to the garage, which replaces the barn of years past. In the garage, with the combine, automated liquids dispenser, and self steering tractor are six Scout Drones on the charging bench and two larger Spray Drones on the garage floor. The farmer ascertains that all the Scout Drone batteries have been fully charged before entering his air conditioned office.
The first order of business is to check todays weather. The automated weather monitor shows current weather as light and variable wind and no significant cloud cover. The computer forecasts show the same for the morning, however cloud buildup for the late afternoon with scattered evening showers. We can always use more rain.
Next, the farmer reviews the field maps of his crops on the large touch screen computer display. Three fields were previously showing slight heat stress and he decides to image them again in the 920 nm spectrum. He has been having problems with weed infestation on another field, especially in the corner near the stream. He programs the Drones accordingly and switches on the surface radar that will scan the surrounding lands for conflicting traffic. In the event of a conflict with a manned aircraft or another Drone, the computer will deconflict the situation, and if necessary recall all his Drones back to their assigned landing pads.
At the charging bench, the farmer moves the three IR imaging equipped drones out to their assigned landing pads. After each is preflighted and conducts a self check, they are sent on their way. The weed searcher Drone’s imaging device has to be changed and programmed for the crop it will be scanning. It will scan for any image not related to the programmed crop and provide density and location information on return. When finished, he takes the Drone to its assigned landing pad, preflights it and completes the self tests before releasing it for flight. Time for lunch.
After lunch, the farmer returns to the garage. The four Drones are on their respective landing pads and shut down. The farmer moves the Drones back onto the charging bench and begins the IR, and weed infestation data down load. In the office, he analyses the data, determines one field is doing OK, but adjusts the irrigation schedule for the other two. The weed mapping data confirms his suspicions that the infestation is migrating from the fallow land near the stream. He identifies the weed species, selects the recommended herbicide and potency and prepares a program card for the Spray Drone. He moves the Spray Drone to its assigned landing pad, mixes the herbicide and fills the hopper. He then starts the engine on the drone and allows it to warm up while the Drone performs its self tests. He then releases the Drone which goes to the designated area, identifies the individual weed plants and applies a squirt of herbicide to each plant before returning to the landing pad and shutting down. The farmer then washes down the Spray Drone blow dries it and returns it to the garage. In the office he completes the computer entries to document his accomplishments for the day. The job’s not done till the paperwork is finished. He turns off the radar and as he walks up to the house he thinks, “Maybe tomorrow I should take the ATV down by the stream to see if there is some way to stop the migration of weeds into that field.”
So ends, “Another day down on the farm with Drones.”
That was fantasy; or maybe not, in the not too distant future.