One of five featured smart farming technologies in our precision agriculture series
Not even agriculture can escape the drone explosion. In contrast to some of the new unusual applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), this is already a reality and holds real value.
Drones carrying a camera, piloted by the farmer on the ground, can survey the land. Its multiple lenses image the fields from nine angles in infrared and visible wavelengths.
They offer far greater resolution and detail than satellites, flying as low as 100ft and covering over 1000 acres an hour. The images are analysed to map a number of variables from moisture in topsoil, to chlorophyll content of leaves and distribution of pernicious weeds like blackgrass.
The farmer receives this information via an electronic map with encoded instructions that can be uploaded to the machinery to allow precise application of inputs.
This reduces the cost of inputs and ensures maximum potential yield is reached. In the case of wheat, yield can increase by 2-5% by mapping spread of the pernicious weed blackgrass.
In the UK a number of companies already offer drone services combining remote sensing and imaging of fields with analysis of crop intelligence to inform farm decision.
Defra now offers a grant for farms towards drone imaging services. But at present, drone use is yet to reach the mainstream due to cost and perception.
In some instances, UAVs are also being used to herd livestock. Although a more novel application, this could prove useful in areas like Scotland where farmers keep fewer sheep on large tracts of hillside, making it harder to find stray and lone sheep by hand.
However the greatest potential for UAVs lies in providing detailed leaf by leaf imaging.