Drone Farming is Taking Off

Drones have had a very significant impact on the revolution of agriculture in the 21st Century. Drones are typically used in crop inspection, crop mapping, plant breeding, irrigation control, monitoring climate data and pest & disease control.

The main advantages are that, compared to humans, drones can scan farming systems from a bird’s eye view with much more detail and precision. They can collect and send high-resolution images in real-time. This, combined with GPS, means that drones can provide accurate location information. For example, GPS can locate pre-selected field positions to collect soil samples. A lab can then analyse these samples and create a fertility map, which is utilised for crop mapping.

Subsequently, a farmer can decide on the amount of fertiliser for each field location and vary the rate of planting seeds according to the soil type.

Another use for drone farming is linked heavily to sustainability. Drone agriculture helps improve the management of limited resources, resulting in less waste and more cost-efficiency. Additionally, rapidly evolving environmental conditions have aggravated challenges. It is no longer plausible to simply rely on human eyes for increasingly complicated farming techniques.

Despite the value evident in drone farming, smaller farms run by smallholders in developing countries have not benefited as much from drones. According to Messina, a professor of geography at Michigan State University, “one challenge is in regard to translating drone technology into something that gives useful information to farmers”.

However, over the years, the cost of running a basic agricultural drone has dropped significantly, making this technology more affordable to smallholders. Although drone data can be very useful, for instance, revealing where to fertilise and where to spray pesticides, industrial farmers have more resources to address such issues compared to smallholders.

Azerbaijan has started production of agricultural drones that will be used for sowing purposes. According to Mammadova, a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, these drones can be used for spraying granular mineral fertiliser in very precise locations. One significant advantage of drones used for sowing is that, unlike heavy farming equipment, they do not have wheels which inflict damage on the field, nor do they consume as much fuel.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is becoming an attractive hotspot for Chinese technology firms in terms of investing in drone agriculture. The reason is that Ukraine has very limited drone regulations and new land ownership reforms. One example is where XAG (a Chinese robotics and AI company focused on agriculture) has collaborated with DroneUA (a Ukrainian unmanned solutions company, specialised in drone technology) to distribute agricultural drones in 2020.

Also, with DroneUA’s support, XAG drones will become the first drones that can be leased with full insurance coverage, making these drones far more affordable to smallholders. The other significant development is that Ukraine is embracing a new educational programme to create the next generation of tech-savvy farmers.

The current limitation with drones is their inability to fly in winds exceeding 25mph and stay airborne for long durations of time. A new start-up called ‘Hover Bird’ has created a drone which mimics bird flight, resulting in flight time potentially increasing from 20 minutes to three hours in optimal conditions. Currently, these drones, which are made from inexpensive materials, are expected to create more accessibility to farmers. Moving ahead, this start-up intends to work closely with farmers when developing its technologies.