Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have already revolutionized many sectors of the economy, from the defense industry to civil construction. The use of drones in agriculture offers the potential to reduce production costs and increase operational efficiency and overall profits. The scale of UAV applications continues to grow, which in the long run is likely to translate into even greater economic benefits and significant improvements for farmers.

New technologies in agriculture

The need to feed 8 billion people is a huge challenge for food producers. Increasing the scale of cultivation is not always possible, but also poses a serious threat to sustainability. The priority, therefore, is to increase the efficiency of agricultural production, served by two trends:

  • smart farming – that is, the use of new technologies and innovations in cultivation;
  • Precision agriculture – that is, management integrated with the specific location and its needs.

The realization of the above directions is made possible, among other things. computer technology, wireless networks, the Internet, artificial intelligence, and remote sensing. It is within the framework of the latter that unmanned aerial vehicles are being used. The use of drones in agriculture offers a number of advantages over aircraft and satellite imagery, but is also subject to certain limitations.

Crop monitoring and its benefits

Today, the most important application of drones in agricultural operations is crop monitoring. It is particularly important for owners of large, split farms located far from the farmer’s headquarters. There are already companies in the world that offer regular “flights” over the fields, in addition to professional consulting. Photos taken from a drone have extremely high resolution and allow assessment of aspects such as the presence of pests, the degree of weed infestation, disease development and even nutrient deficits. This includes the use of. NDVI indicator, which uses colors to reflect the condition of the plants in the picture.

The use of drones in agriculture also includes inspecting the condition of the soil and assessing the relief of the land, which is crucial for planning the next crop. Such mapping is cheaper than using satellite imagery and guarantees greater image detail – drones fly low over fields and are not bothered by dense clouds.

Information gleaned from the UAV provides precise, up-to-date information to respond quickly to problems that arise, thereby reducing potential losses. As historical data, they are used for long-term analysis of crop trends, such as the productivity of individual varieties, the effectiveness of fertilizers or pesticides used, the number of drought days and their impact on crop condition. This information makes it possible to adapt the production strategy to changing realities and incorporate prevention of the most likely problems into plans.

Active use of drones in agriculture and forestry

It is a mistake to think of drones solely in terms of recording devices. Already, drones are being used to sow seeds in forests. Two operators operating 10 drones are able to plant the 400 thousand. new trees In one day. This also takes into account locations with complex terrain where traditional machines would be difficult to reach. The germinated seeds are released in biodegradable capsules that also contain essential nutrients. The same mechanism is already being used in agriculture, but for now on an experimental scale.

In the United States and South Korea, drones are also already being used to spray crops, especially those high above sea level. They enable the precise application of crop protection products, reducing costs while eliminating the health risks associated with the manual application of pesticides and herbicides. The use of drones in agriculture also includes physical protection, important especially in the context of high-yield crops and animal husbandry. The drones quickly and easily monitor the state of the fence and any suspicious activity. They are also able to identify sick, injured or lost animals, reducing the need for more staff and regular patrols.

Limitations of drone use

Do drones have any weaknesses? They do. So far, it’s a rather expensive technology, which on top of that requires a specialist or trained personnel. This is because the quality of the photographs received and their substantive value depend on the competence of the pilot. The upfront costs can therefore be a considerable burden on a farmer’s budget. The use of drones in agriculture is not yet regulated by law, which could raise potential problems, especially in the case of complaints or accidents. The devices also have limited battery range and carrying capacity and are prone to damage in bad weather. The threat of collisions and cyber attacks is also openly discussed. Ensuring the security of data acquired through above-ground monitoring remains a formidable challenge.

Drones and return on investment (ROI)

A survey conducted by DroneDeploy among 750 customers in more than 40 countries around the world shows that drones significantly increase the profitability of agricultural operations. The increase is due to a reduction in the need for labor and heavy equipment, but also to more efficient distribution of crop protection products, improved worker safety, reduced losses and increased crop productivity.

The cost of the new technology, compared to the gains associated with improved fertility, savings in time and materials, and overall improvements in management efficiency, yield a very satisfactory ROI. According to some sources, the outlay can pay for itself in as little as one season. It is worth mentioning that with consumer interest in food origins and production methods, drone management helps guarantee the desired quality, which in turn helps increase margins. It is hardly surprising that global drone use in agriculture in 2022. was valued at $4.17 billion, and the forecast for 2030 is for the sector’s market value to rise to more than $18 billion.

Prospective use of drones in agriculture

The scale of UAV applications in crop and livestock farming is bound to grow as the technology improves. Already, scientists in the Netherlands and Japan are testing a breakthrough innovation to mitigate the risks associated with the environmental crisis. We are talking about minidrones, which will be able to pollinate plants without causing damage. In Australia, this scenario is already being implemented experimentally in greenhouses with tomatoes and strawberries. The project’s authors anticipate that it will help farmers become less dependent on weather and climate and manage inputs more efficiently.

Drones are also likely to be used in conjunction with artificial intelligence. AI is expected to make it possible to simultaneously monitor diversified crops by recognizing different species and varieties and the various stages of their development. This facilitation is expected to revolutionize primarily the operations of small-scale farmers engaged in alternative cultivation.

A project is also being developed in Australia for the prospective use of drones to combat the worsening drought. Thanks to the microwave receptors, it will be possible to assess the current level of soil moisture in specific locations and replenish it where needed. This will make it possible to take care of the fertility while saving resources. The use of drones in agriculture appears to have an impact on both the profitability of food production and overall organic welfare. The benefits are thus threefold: economic, social and environmental.

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