Drones are not just a hot gift item or a weapon for use by the military. They're also helping farmers change the landscape of agriculture.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80 percent of drones in the commercial sector will be used for agriculture, according to USA Today.
Alongside unmanned tractors and satellite technology, drones are seen by many as part of the next generation of “precision agriculture” tools, able to use Big Data to improve agricultural practices and efficiency. Though still in its infancy as a tool, here are five ways drones are already impacting the food system.
1. Providing Aerial Imagery
Getting a bird’s-eye-view can help farmers in many ways. Drones can detect issues such as off-kilter tractors and broken irrigation lines from above. Whereas satellites can only pass over ground every two weeks or so, and airplanes are expensive and can be impacted by clouds, drones can fly closer to the ground, allowing in some cases for centimeter-level clarity.
2. Keeping Controlled Burns Safe
Farmers often initiate controlled burns on their fields between growing seasons to prepare the soil. Though common, burns carry many risks. Using a drone, however, allows people to stay farther away from flames. Drones can start the controlled fires and can monitor progress from above.
3. Monitoring Crop Health
Drones also have the capability to carry high-tech imagery software, such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) software, and thermal imaging filters. This technology can detect when vegetation is low on water and minerals, and can also detect diseases. Thermal imaging filters can detect E. coli in livestock and give producers a jumpstart at containing an outbreak.
4. Detecting Soil Health
When drones are equipped with NDVI a farmer can also detect changes in soil. Farmers can study soil moisture levels, allowing for optimal crop growth, and lead levels, indicating whether the soil is toxic.
5. Precise delivery of inputs
About 516 million pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S. in 2008, according to a USDA study. Pesticides can drift from their intended target onto neighboring fields, putting crops and people in danger. Drones can deliver chemicals in precise amounts, which helps minimize runoff and over-use.
New capabilities to harvest information via drone have drawn criticism, as many voice privacy concerns. Most regulations regarding drones exist in the realm of military use. This lack of regulation isn’t just worrisome for those concerned with privacy, but growers whose drones are grounded due to a lack of delegated airspace for drones.
Lawmakers are gradually passing regulations intended to clarify the landscape; both agriculture and real estate markets in Idaho and Arizona were permitted in 2015 to fly drones, for instance. These new permits require a ground pilot and an observer, along with an FAA private pilot certificate. Currently, the FAA does not allow drones to be used for commercial operations unless operators apply for a special exemption.
Despite these limitations, many expect to see drones hovering our fields in the near future.
This story was produced by Kansas City Public Television in Kansas City, Missouri.