The rice of the drones


Following our overview on potential civil markets for UAVs, here is an interesting one: “Precision Agriculture”! Current UAV technologies now allow farmers to enhance their productivity and make a better use of their land, through two main capabilities: remote sensing and precision application.

A variety of remote sensors are available to scan plants for health problems, record growth rates or hydration, and locate disease outbreaks. Such sensors can be attached to ground vehicles, aerial vehicles and even satellites. Precision application is especially useful for crop farmers and horticulturists, as it ensures efficient utilization of spray techniques cover plants and fields more selectively. Farmers can provide only the needed pesticide or nutrient to each plant, reducing the total amount sprayed, and thus saving money, time and reducing environmental impacts.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle International (AUVSI) recently assessed in a report on The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft systems integration in the United States, that Precision agriculture is going to be one of the two main markets for the civil UAV industry. According to this forecasts, UAV on US agriculture segment for 2015 will generate a total economic impact in all 50 states of nearly $2.1 billion with total job creation of 21 565. As AUVSI vice-president Chris Mailey told “Agriculture is going to be the big market”.

In 2009, an Idaho farmer homebrewed his own drone, slapped a commercial digital camera on it, and began extracting data on soil patterns to help his business expand. Companies like CropCam build lightweight, modular, GPS-driven gliders to give farmers an aerial view of their fields without requiring pilot training or the expense of buying a small manned plane. According to Steady Drone, a South African drone producer with representatives on all continents, the use of UAVs may become a key success factor for farmers in the future.

Some of them already use spectral analysis provided by a satellite, but this is still not precise enough for small parcels. Some factors do distort satellite’s data such as clouds, smoke, air pollution, and others.

Flying drones appears a both more accurate and more affordable way of observing and managing crops. Some UAV can fly up to one hundred kilometers an hour which enables them to cover fairly large areas in a short time window. Moreover they are a lot less influenced by the factors mentioned above because they are directly above the field and so weather cannot really influence the measured data. Today, there also prove more reliable, and are able to fly in more stringent weather conditions than before. In addition, these small aircraft, equipped with special cameras, are able to take remote images with great details, transmitting farmers with maps that reveal significant date such as: the state of their plants, their water and nutritional needs, where to use fertilizers or phyto-sanitary treatment, where to add or improve irrigation systems, precise location of diseases. Of course, this is all dependent on drone manufacturers offering robots cheap and simple enough for farmers to use them.

Japan provides some indication on the potential demand for drones by farmers. Yamaha introduced its RMAX unmanned helicopter for crop-spraying as early as 1990. By 2010, the drone copter and its robotic competitors – some 2300 of them – sprayed 30% of Japanese rice fields with pesticides, according to a recent Yamaha presentation. The Japanese farm hectares sprayed by manned helicopters dropped from 1,328 in 1995 to 57 in 2011, as unmanned helicopter spray rose to 1,000 hectares that year.

Innovation in this segment is very dynamic and enables to answer more and more specific users’ needs. A research center of the University of Virginia already uses UAVs to locate germs in the atmosphere that could spread plant diseases. The Virginia Tech research will be used as part of an early warning system for pathogens. AgroDrone, one of the team participating in the MIT Idea global challenge is focusing on helping farmers to improve farm yield and lower operating cost operating UAVs. New Environmental legislation may drive farmers to adopt this kind of technology. However, in order to release all the market potential, National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) have to adapt the certification framework to future users’ needs. That is being slowly sorted out.