The future of farming: how drones can benefit the agricultural sector
By Jean-Michel Boyer, CEO, BNP Paribas Leasing Solutions UK
Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), have been used for commercial purposes since the 1980s. Over the last few decades, the technology has advanced significantly and is gaining popularity across a range of industries. A PwC global report on the commercial applications of drone technology estimates that the total global market value for drone powered solutions sits at $127.3 billion.
Infrastructure, agriculture and transport are ear-marked as the sectors with the most potential to benefit. Given that the predicted market value for drones in agriculture alone is a healthy $32.4 billion, farmers are understandably interested in applications ranging from soil analysis to crop health assessment.
The full potential of drone technology in the agricultural sector hasn’t been fully realised. However, it can already help farmers take the guesswork out of farming with sophisticated data collection and analysis. These insights can be used to develop precision farming techniques that will generate greater yields with fewer resources.
Drone technology can help farmers boost efficiency and profits even as they battle the repercussions of Brexit, volatile commodity prices and skill shortages. Let’s take a closer look at some of the realities; the specific agricultural applications already available, their affordability and future possibilities.
A drone can take centimetre level images and traverse the whole field rather than just the perimeter. Using a multi-spectral sensor, the camera can get up close and monitor things that even the expert eye can’t detect, such as moisture, plant health, stress level, as well as things like crop density, contour problems and plant height.
Drones can survey and monitor large fields with greater accuracy than satellite imagery, and at a more affordable price. Farmers can keep tabs on their harvests (or livestock) and check critical infrastructure such as fencing remotely. Plus, time-lapse animation enables better crop management as farmers can assess and compare imagery over a defined period of time.
Water and soil analysis
According to experts at the International Water Management Institute, using near-infra-red makes it possible to identify stress in a plant, for example from pests, water shortage or disease, 10 days before it becomes visible to the eye. A 10-day warning could prevent massive crop loss and protect a farmer’s projected earnings for that season.
Infra-red analysis can also help improve crop irrigation by highlighting which parts of the field are too dry or too wet. Drones equipped with 3D mapping equipment can even provide data on soil fertility and help detect deficiencies in mineral content. Farmers can plot their crop rotation based on precise soil analysis and early detection; which means less dependence on, and more precise use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Planting and spraying
Drone planting systems are being developed that could reduce planting costs by up to 85% in developed countries. Drones equipped with sprayers can use ultrasonic echoing devices and lasers to measure distances with even more precision. This means that high-value crops are planted more effectively, less pesticides are required and the job is completed faster.
Debate around the use of drone technology could delay this progress. In addition to cost, other barriers to entry relate primarily to privacy and safety issues – the biggest concern being the type and quality of data that can be captured.
Drones are however becoming much more affordable as the technology advances and key components become commonplace in other devices such as smartphones. Farming looks set to benefit the most out of any industry: The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), says that the use of drones in agriculture is expected to make up to 80 percent of their future commercial UAV market.
To maintain their competitive advantage in an ever-changing world, farmers shouldn’t delay investment in new agricultural technologies. Rather, they should maximise their annual investment allowance and use smart finance to access the technology they need to succeed.
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