Drones in Agriculture: How Farmers Can Improve Crop Production

Just 10 years ago (call it 2005), very few people would have predicted that using drones in agriculture would be a thing. Back then most people didn’t even know that drones would be a thing.

The video above was recorded in 2014, but still accurately describes what an agricultural drone can do.

Today agricultural drones, operated either by the farmer himself or someone he hires, are becoming more commonplace. I don’t think it’s out of line to say that in a few years they will be ubiquitous. Just take a look at what the Japanese have done.

Below we’ll take a look at what farmers can do with agriculture drones – either fixed wings, quadcopters, or other multi-rotors – to improve crop production. You might be surprised at how advanced this technology has become in just a few years.

Click a heading in the table below to go directly to that section of interest. Otherwise, simply scroll and read on.

What Can Drones in Agriculture Do?

The most obvious task that quadcopters and other drones can perform for a farmer is taking pictures of crops and open fields. Since these drones fly at a relatively low altitude, cloud cover doesn’t matter, like it does when taking photos from an airplane.

Being closer to a field almost automatically means getting more accurate images than is likely from other sources, as long as the drone uses a camera or sensors that are high quality.

If the drone you use is capable of flying for an extended period of time, as many fixed wings are, you can easily cover hundreds of acres in a single flight. That’s one pass over the field, not multiple passes, to get the pictures you need.

Assuming you use quality equipment (cameras, sensors, etc.), your pictures will give you greater resolution than is possible even with most satellite imagery. At the end of the day, you combine those photos into what is called an orthomosaic. That’s really just a fancy term for saying you programmatically stitch your pictures of plants together.

The resulting image is like a map that shows you which areas or your crops and fields need more attention and closer examination at the ground level. All of this is possible for less than the cost of “manned services”.

Drones are sophisticated enough that, combined with software, you can pre-program them to fly wherever you want completely on autopilot.

Note that you will need remote pilot certification, since this is considered a commercial drone operation.

What Can Agriculture Drone Cameras and Sensors Detect?

There are a number of different types of cameras and sensors that you can attach to a drone to give you the information you need to increase crop production.

Probably the most basic is a standard camera, like a GoPro, that gives you real-world images you can use to visually inspect crops, count plants, and use in elevation modeling. You may see this referred to as RGB, or red-green-blue, imagery.

A fairly common sensing technique uses near-infrared (NIR) sensors. This is useful for many analyses such as soil property, crop health, moisture, crop stress, and erosion. In addition, you can tackle water management and do more plant counting.

You can employ red-edge (RE) sensors as well for plant counting, water management, and crop health analysis.

Multispectral sensing combines both NIR and RE applications, but is not useful for plant counting.

Finally, you might use thermal infrared technology for maturity evaluation, plant physiology analysis, irrigation scheduling, and yield forecasting.

What Can I Do with the Results of My Analyses?

In addition to plant counting and related statistics, all of the data you collect is particularly good at telling you what water is doing to your land.

Vegetation indices, such as the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and the crop water stress index (CWSI), give you insights on detecting structural, chlorophyll, and water stresses.

Elevation data helps you monitor erosion and assists you in creating better water drainage and irrigation systems.

When the information indicates that you need to get out into the field to manually inspect an area, you will be able to detect patterns you would not otherwise have looked for, find machine problems, locate weeds and erosion areas, and more.

Data points explaining soil moisture and temperature also help with evaluating your drainage systems and give clues as to reasons for plant disease and mortality.

When Can I Use Drones in My Fields?

Many farmers elect to use drones all year around – spring, summer, fall, and winter. There are plausible reasons for doing so.

In the spring, you would naturally want to analyze your soils, tillage, and drainage systems in preparation for spring planting.

In summer, you put your drone to use giving you plant counts, gap analysis, growth variability observations, help with irrigation management, assessment of nitrogen needs, and timing your applications.

Fall brings two phases of drone usage – pre-harvest and post-harvest. The main pre-harvest tasks are dry down and stand consistency checks. Once the fields are cleared, you’ll use a drone for soil and tillage analysis and topography calculations.

Winter is the best time for assessing input and machinery performance.

Which Drones Are Available for Farm Use?

There are many drones currently available that could be put to use on your farm. Some are specifically agriculture drones, while others need to be adapted to such use.

Here are some of the more popular models. Expect more and better models to appear as time goes on.

For fixed wing drones, look at these.

For multi-rotors, including quadcopters, check out these.