Drones in Precision Farming

Luis Simón Gómez Semeleder    19 November, 2015

Streamlining and modernizing farming techniques has been a key process since the turn of the century in order to ensure global food supplies. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that farming production will need to be increased at least 70% by 2050, thus almost duplicating current production.

However, climate events (shifts in weather patterns, advancing desertification…), combined with demographic and social trends (increase in urban population and city size…) make it very difficult to allocate the necessary farming land in the medium term. Therefore it is more important than ever to be able to optimise the use of farming land to be able to increase current production.

From a consumer perspective, most of the farming resources are dedicated to water, fertilizers and plant protection products, as well as the power to carry out the irrigation, fertilizing and harvesting.

New technologies simplify manual processes and make a better use of available resources. There are currently a variety of Internet of Things based solutions to digitize farming processes: smart irrigation, cattle monitoring, smart water resources management, etc. Farms have also started to use connected drones recently.

Drone farming

Besides the coolness factor, drones are an ideal platform for monitoring activities. The main advantage of flying a drone over other aerial solutions is its rapid deployment, enabling monitoring of large portions of farmland in a simple, quick and cost-effective manner, providing high value insight that speeds up decision-making.

Spectral on-board sensors allow drones to take high resolution aerial pictures of the whole plot of land evaluated.

Certain farming activities are currently automated thanks to GPS positioning tools. Therefore these activities can now be planned and designed with a great deal of precision

Fertilizer management

The pictures taken using the different on-board cameras (multispectral, infrared, thermal…) provide data that goes beyond what can be seen with the naked eye: soil nitrate levels, or crop vigour through leaf brightness testing (plant reflectance). It is possible to determine exact fertilising needs for the soil of each plot of land after processing this data.

Thus, farmers can have a fertilizing map while driving the tractor, which will allow them to add only the needed amount of fertiliser in each differentiated area. This level of precision brings obvious advantages: previously the whole plot of land received equal amount of fertiliser or it was spread based on the farmer’s experience and knowledge. The lack of science behind this had a toll on using these products efficiently and required farmer expertise. Technology takes this burden off farmers’ shoulders and allows to maximise investment in expensive plant treatment products and fertilisers maintaining farming land performance at its peak thanks to the precise data obtained.

Water resources and other farming applications for drones

Based on our bird’s-eye-view data provided by multiple sensors, we can extract further information that allow us to extend our analysis to other aspects of plots and crops. Besides fertiliser level, we can also determine the amount of watering required (if the crop is subject to “water stress”), control pruning requirements, detect weeds, or keep invasive species at bay in real time.

Other applications are more obvious and well known, but also important for farming activity and are related to surveying applications (plot measurements, cadastral surveys…), reservoir water management, river courses, crop patrolling and security, etc.

Affordable technology

Steep entry barriers previously made access to these aerial resources (satellite, or plane/helicopter images) only affordable for large crop owners (normally in the hands of the big food industry players).

Drone technology is an outstanding improvement, unthinkable until not long ago. It is a tangible reality that allows access to relevant information positively impacting on crop performance at an affordable price for farmers that own medium size crops.

Telefónica’s global offering in farming, called Smart Agro, combines connectivity and the support channel of a leading telecommunications firm with partners that provide both the technology and expertise in the field of farming. We offer customised end to end projects to suit the needs of any farmer whether it is to reshape their business model or improve the operative process, maximizing savings in either case. 

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