28/04/2022

Drones in Agriculture: Benefits, Applications and Things to Consider

Drones are fast becoming a crucial tool in agriculture, but how do you know if they are the right choice for your business? Olivia Soares de Camargo, Customer Service and Satisfaction Engineer at senseFly, an AgEagle company, explores the tangible benefits of drone technology in agriculture -AgTech- and the key considerations before investing.

Table of contents

1. Why drones for agriculture?4. Software and drone camera for farming
2. Main applications for drones in agriculture5. Things to consider before purchasing an ag drone
3. Choosing a drone for agricultural use6. Getting started

Why drones for agriculture?

For farmers and agronomists, estimating annual yield more accurately can help make decisions and manage expectations. Here, drones can offer many benefits, helping to gather more on-demand insights, quickly and efficiently, in a non-destructive way. For example, growers can scout entire fields without ever setting foot in the rows, which helps avoid soil compaction and the spread of pests and diseases while minimizing risks to the worker’s safety.

Return on investment is also crucial. A drone can initially seem like an expensive investment, but it offers many long-term benefits for farmers. Actionable insights gained from drone technology quickly pay for themselves and can be realized in as little as one season.

When taking labor into consideration, if the personnel available is not sufficient to check, or scout the property in question – or if the area is too large to be covered by traditional measures – it may be time to seek alternative methods, such as a drone, that can map up to 500 ha in one single flight.

Plus, when it comes to crops, is productivity below expectations or irregular? Some farmers also decide to switch to agrotechnology with a drone when producing high-value crops, using precision systems, or practicing integrated pest, weed, and disease management (IPM).

Main applications for drones in agriculture

  • All-season: crop development, plant health (pests/diseases), nutrition, well-being, weeds mapping/management, leak detection, extreme events assessment, insurance claim, water management (drainage/irrigation), operation’s efficiency, volumetric measurement.
  • Pre-season: land survey, land distribution and measuring, land topography, water, and soil management. 
  • Early season: planting/sowing efficiency, stand spacing, stand counting/stand quality, weed control.
  • Mid-season: yield prediction.
  • Late season: biomass content, crop maturity, soil conservation.
  • Livestock management: counting, detection, behavior, in extensive systems – availability of feed.
Agriculture expert with eBee X drone
Ag expert, Olivia Soares de Camargo, with an eBee X fixed-wing drone in the field.

Choosing a drone for agricultural use

Not all drones have the same features. Purchasing one for the first time can be a daunting decision: it needs to be easy to operate and provide high-performance and reliable data collection but at an affordable entry point.

Fixed-wing drones like the eBee X are well placed to meet these requirements – particularly in agriculture applications where greater coverage and longer flight times are needed. Although it is variable depending on the needs of the operation, an integrated solution of drone, camera, and software (including flight management and post-processing) is widely favored.

The eBee X technology also offers the option to upgrade to other features for longer flight times and increased accuracy, with options such as Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) and Post-Processed Kinematic (PPK) and endurance extensions for longer flight times.

The right drone camera and software for farming

The choice of drone sensor is key. Multispectral and RGB are the main cameras used for several applications pre, during, and postseason and the insights gained help direct agronomists and crop scouts to the right spot early.

Orthomosaic maps (RGB sensor) are used for planning the planting prioritizing, soil conservation and for water management to avoid erosion/leaching. NDVI maps with vegetation indices generation (multispectral sensor) highlight crop health, development and production, depending on the crop, variety, and stage.

Aerial map with NDVI dataset in Assens
Comparison of satellite map and the RGB and NDVI data collected with the eBee X and senseFly Duet M (multispectral and RGB) drone camera.

For example, thanks to the NDVI dataset (right), the farmer can identify various issues in the field.

  • Area 1 showcases the crop emergence stage, percentage and planting orientation.
  • Area 2 is the zone ready to be planted. It shows the presence of weeds, and farmers can choose to apply a pre-plant herbicide application for control if necessary, to specific infested spots.
  • Area 3 showcases the post-emergence vigor of the crop, such as the quality of the stand, planting failures, stand health, and allows farmers to see both problematic and healthy areas.
  • Area 4 allows the identification of any specific problem spots or regions in the field.

When it comes to image processing, fixed-wing drones are a great option for reducing human error, while preserving image quality. Users can also carry out the same missions over the same fields on different dates, to compare data, monitor changes and eliminate extra variables.

Choosing RTK/PPK position referencing technology adds an even greater level of accuracy without the need for ground control points.

Once the images are collected, they also need to be processed after the flight, to generate final data outputs – the maps such as orthomosaic, contour line, vegetation index, etc, using specialized software. For this reason, many manufacturers, like senseFly, an AgEagle company, generates images in universal formats that are compatible with a range of post-processing software.

Other things to consider when purchasing an ag drone

The right drone needs to be easy to use and simple to integrate with your workflow and other technologies. It must also be robust, and suitable for withstanding harsh agricultural environments. And how easy is the drone to transport? Ideally, your chosen UAS should be lightweight for carrying between fields and for operating within more regulatory frameworks.  

eBee X drone and backpack in a field
The eBee X is easily transported in a backpack, can be deployed in 3 minutes and operated by one person.

We also advise that agriculture professionals check that their drone is compliant with the appropriate local regulations. Drone regulations still vary significantly across the globe, so keeping up to date with the latest regulatory changes is essential.

Depending on the manufacturer’s standard of technical support available, it can be simple to check if the equipment complies with your local regulations. In the US, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires a Part 107 certification to become a licensed drone operator and fly commercially on a farm.

Getting started

Buying a drone can seem like a big decision, but the opportunities they bring are hard to ignore for farmers and agronomists. New uses are being discovered all the time across the farm, and new applications within each crop continue to rise.

The more time you spend using your drone in the field, the more you will understand the significance of the data, and the easier it will be to see trends and make tangible changes in your workflow. Many drone manufacturers offer online training and webinars, to help users get the most out of their devices.

It is an exciting time to invest in a drone for agriculture – why don’t you see for yourself?