Drones in agriculture
The use of drones in agriculture is giving farmers a cheap and affordable solution to monitor and improve crop health. This is done by getting some actionable data of crops. There are two types of drones in agriculture. The fixed wing drones and the multi rotors.
The first step is to get a cheap platform for taking aerial agriculture images. Then we stitch together these images by a technique called mapping. This is done by a software and we get a map of the field. This map provides us a clear picture of land or crop health. We can then take appropriate actions to improve the yield. These actions include when to plant and when and where to spray the fertilizers. The other way to get these aerial pictures is to use the satellite or a manned aircraft. Both of these methods are expensive in comparison to the drones. The satellite images also depend on the location of satellites and also not of a good quality. The drone solutions, on the other hand, are quite cheap in most cases and give low altitude, under the clouds and high-resolution images.
What are we looking for in aerial agriculture images:
Now the obvious question comes to mind is what we want to see in agriculture imagery. Since these drones can take pictures in both visible and infrared spectrum, we get a huge amount of information. We look for any patterns showing something of significance. Also, are there any weeds, or fungus present. Are there any irrigation issues visible. We can get answers to these type of questions. Similarly, soil analysis, moisture analysis, and plant counting can be done. Based on all of this information we can subdivide the crop into different health zones. We make sure that all the field is covered. We can then decide the best input for each of these zones. But how do we extract this information from the images? The answer is we use spectral imaging techniques in which we use special cameras and data analysis software.
Drones with infrared cameras:
Most of the drones in agriculture are equipped with near-infrared (NIR) cameras. These cameras operate in near-infrared spectrum and have the ability to detect health issues in crops. We can see the difference between healthy and unhealthy plants using the reflectance values of plant chlorophyll. This is detected by spectral sensors which can not otherwise be easily detected with our naked eyes. Similarly, we can detect whether a plant stand is a crop plant or a weed.
The data collected from drones in agriculture is huge and needs to be analyzed. This analysis can be done on ground station using any software or data can be sent to a third party for analysis. Care should be taken not to lose the critical information present in the data. It is really hard to determine which data analysis tool will make use of the most of the available information because almost every software will lose ‘some’ of the information captured by sensors. This minor loss of information is usually not a big deal but one should not miss the critical information while stitching images or during data analysis.
Data processing tools:
Some of the tools and companies offering data processing services for agriculture include Pix4Dag, DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk, Slantrange, skycision, resson and agribotix. There are many others and one should do a proper research before going ahead with any of these tools.
Making use of the drone data:
After getting information about crop health, the drones are deployed for spraying fertilizers or chemicals for weeds and pest controls in the targeted regions of the crop. For this, few important considerations include the payload capability, flight time and proper licensing for the class of the aircraft used for this operation. More payload means large converge but since the take-off weight of the aircraft will increase, the drone pilot licensing requirements may change because the aircraft classes also depend on the weight.
Benefits of drone aerial imagery:
The main benefits of drones in agriculture are cutting costs and improving yield. But the use of drones can help in taking decisions about some other activities like land management, installation of drainage, movement of livestock, drought assessment, tree classification, barn roof inspections, inspections in relation to insurance claims or changes in any farming practices.
Popular Agriculture drones:
Some of the popular agriculture drones are the precision agriculture drone eBee SQ by sensefly, lancaster 5 by precisionhawk, DJI agriculture drones such as DJI Matrice 100, DJI Inspire 2 and DJI Ages MG-1.
Fixed wing or multirotor drone for agriculture use:
When we compare the both, fixed wing drones are efficient because of their aerodynamic characteristics. Fixed wing can take more payload and fly longer. This means mores sensors and large coverage. These are therefore favorites of most farmers. However, fixed wing drones are more expensive than the multi-rotor drones. Also, fixed wing drones are more useful in large open spaces while multi-copters are the choice for small and narrow locations.
Agriculture drone technology is moving forward at a tremendous rate. Agriculture drones are becoming a tool for farming and farmers are embracing this technology. They can capture highly accurate low altitude images of a very large area at an affordable price. These images could be both within the visible spectrum and infrared spectrum and contain valuable information about crop health. In Australia, the authorities are encouraging farmers to use drone solutions for their farms. Agriculture drone companies are trying hard to make a turnkey type of solutions for farmers. The agriculture drone market has a huge potential and it would be interesting to see how these flying machines change the way we do farming.
At the same time companies like airmap are making airspace management systems for drones. These efforts will make drones a part of our everyday life.