Technological innovation isn’t new to farming. Farmers have been embracing new technologies for millennia, from the discovery of crop rotation in the Middle Ages to the cotton gin and chemical fertilizers of the 1800s, to the satellite mapping of the late 1900s, notes Andrew Meola.
In this new century, technology continues to change farming — just in time, perhaps, for some of the biggest agricultural challenges humankind has yet faced. Drone mapping has yielded benefits in a number of industries and practices, from better mining management to faster and more efficient disaster response, drone researcher Vijay Kumar notes. Farms are also discovering ways to put mapping technologies to work in order to improve growing conditions, maximize crop yields and better manage resources.
Mapping via drone “is like being able to see your farm from a 10,000 foot altitude, but also being able to zoom in to two inches above the plants,” notes Rob Eggert of TDS Fertilizer. “There’s no other system that can do that.”
Not surprisingly, drone mapping is one of the most versatile tech tools available for farming today.
Putting Drone Mapping to Work on the Farm
Throughout the United States and the world, farmers are finding innovative ways to put drone mapping to work in the service of their crops and their business. They are using the same technology we employ every day. Here are just a few of their most recent applications.
NDVI, or normalized difference vegetation index, is a mapping method that can spot whether an area contains live plants, according to Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Tyne Logan.
NDVI got its start in surveying and satellite imaging a decade ago. Today, improvements in the sensors and programming have made it possible to outfit drones with NDVI technology, giving them the ability to provide detailed overviews not only of vegetation, but also of irrigation leaks, flooded areas and other potential problems in fields.
Drones allow farmers to practice “precision agriculture,” in which they manage resources to ensure each plant in a crop receives the proper amount of water, fertilizer and protection from pests, flooding, and disease, according to Meola. By employing drones to check on crops, farmers can spot parts of a field or herd that need attention, but that might not be visible from a ground-level spot check.
Checking Crops for Parasites
Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras make it much easier for farmers to spot infestations of parasites, fungi and invasive plant species that can devastate food crops. For example, farmers in the Imperial Basin of California use drone mapping to check alfalfa fields for dodder, a parasitic plant that can destroy alfalfa seed.
Spotting dodder in time to burn out the young plants and kill the infestation used to be quite difficult. With drones, however, farmers can easily identify dodder infestations in their early stages, saving time, money and labor in containing the parasite, explains farmer Tyler Smith.
Drone-planting systems are beginning to reach the market, having spent several years in development, according to PwC’s Michal Mazur. These drones inject small pods shaped from seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, providing the optimal conditions for the seed to germinate as it plants. Early studies on drone planting technology indicate that an uptake rate of 75 percent can be achieved — while simultaneously cutting planting costs by 85 percent.
Assessing Post-Harvest Erosion and Drainage
While most farm drones see extensive use during the growing season, some farmers, like Sam Meeker, have started putting their drones to work after the harvest as well. By mapping harvested fields, Meeker can examine erosion and drainage. From this intel, he can choose the best places to install new drainage tiles, address erosion or take other steps to prepare the fields well in advance of the next planting cycle.
LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, is an optical technology used to measure the distance from the source of the light to another solid object, according to North Dakota State University.
LiDAR is one of the tools we use to map worksites, and it also has significant uses in agriculture. In a report prepared for the House Standing Committee on Agriculture, Bob Howard from GES Mapping in Australia notes that LiDAR technology, combined with drones, can provide digital elevation models, vegetation models and data on erosion and erosion control. Because LiDAR-equipped drones are reusable and analyze data in real time, farmers can develop constantly updated maps of their land whenever needed.
In the northern Great Plains states, John Dietz at Successful Farming also notes that LiDAR technology has helped farms throughout the Red River Basin reduce flooding by mapping fields and ditches more precisely. Better mapping allows drainage contractors to work more efficiently, providing better drainage that is also more cost-effective.
Fertilization and Water
Like people, plants need the right types and amounts of food and water in order to thrive. Some of these inputs are available in the environment, but in commercial farming many are supplied by the farmer — including phosphorus, a key element in cellular growth and a substance that is in limited supply on our planet, according to biologist Mohamed Hijri.
One solution? Drone-based analysis and administration of variable-rate prescriptions of fertilizer, water and pesticides to each plant or zone. Agricultural expert Landon Oldham has undertaken a project to combine drone imagery with soil samples in order to generate highly accurate nutrient prescription maps, allowing for site-specific application of fertilizer, specific nutrients, water or pesticides.
Smart Farming = Sustainable Growth
By 2050, Earth may be home to as many as 9.6 billion people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To feed this many people, agricultural production will need to expand by 70 percent — even as arable land, fresh water limitations and climate change present unprecedented challenges for farmers.
Smart farming may be the answer to the challenge, according to Forbes’s Federico Guerrini. Drones and mapping technologies are but one piece of a larger smart-farming puzzle, which collects information about crop yields, soil mapping, fertilizer uses, weather patterns, machinery, and animal health and analyzes it digitally to provide guidance to farmers.
In a column published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Achim Walter, Robert Finger, Robert Huber, and Nina Buchmann argue that the application of information and communication technologies in agriculture amounts of a “fourth revolution” in agricultural production. They identify the use of autonomous fertilizers and harvesters, drone mapping, analysis software, and virtual fence technologies “constitute a technical revolution” that will profoundly change the face and future of worldwide farming.
All change comes with questions and uncertainties. As technological tools replace human hands-on labor in a number of farming tasks, many find themselves asking the question David Autor tackled in a 2016 TED Talk: “Will automation take away all our jobs?”
In agriculture, at least, it appears the answer is “no”: Human intervention will always be needed to make critical decisions and to address contingencies that drones can’t identify or prepare for. While the tools make the work easier, they do not eliminate the need for planning or strategy, nor do they replace the importance of hands-on decisionmaking.
Images by: tomas1111/©123RF Stock Photo, ivandzyuba/©123RF Stock Photo, oticki/©123RF Stock Photo