Lean Air: Drones, Data, and Farming

Although a considerable amount of ink is devoted to the recreational applications of drones — e.g. drones as airborne sidekicks that allow bikers, windsurfers, BASE jumpers and others to video themselves from above by wireless tracking, and intriguing uses such as Amazon’s proposal to use drones to deliver stuff — it is in agriculture that drones have, thus far, had big economic and environmental benefits.

Eight months ago Jean-Baptiste Bruggeman began flying a drone over his 210 hectares of farmland in La Louptière-Thénard, France. The robot’s multiple lenses photograph his fields from nine angles in infrared, near infrared and visible wavelengths. After the data are uploaded to a server, agronomists at Airinov, a Paris company, analyse details such as the level of moisture in the topsoil, the chlorophyll content of the crop and its biomass. Within 48 hours Mr Bruggeman receives an electronic map with encoded instructions. When uploaded to his GPS-equipped tractor, it automatically adjusts the spread of fertilizer to the optimal amount required for every part of his fields.

The benefits are enormous. Improving fertiliser allocation boosts yields enough to earn Mr Bruggeman, per hectare, an extra €50 ($64) for rapeseed and up to €100 more for wheat. The wheat’s protein content is also higher. As less fertilizer is applied, polluting run-off into streams is reduced. (From The Economist, December 6, 2014)

The firm Airinov (http://www.airinov.fr/en/)  mentioned in the article above sells a range of hardware and services including an agronomic sensor, drones to carry the sensor aloft, and software to analyze sensor data in order to recommend watering, fertilizing or pesticide-application countermeasures.

Besides surveying, drones can seed and spray fields without compacting topsoil or crushing plants. Large helicopter drones, such as Yamaha’s petrol-powered RMAX, fly lower than manned crop-dusting aeroplanes, so less pesticide is carried off by the wind. Rotor wash from the drone produces a finer mist and shakes leaves to help cover their underside with spray. By one reckoning, this cuts in half the amount of liquid that would otherwise be sprayed by tractor. The RMAX is widely used in Australia, Japan and South Korea. It is transported to fields in the back of a pickup truck, but costs a princely $125,000.

Two years ago an insect-borne citrus disease called huanglongbing began ruining fruit and killing trees in southern California. Infected trees, which need to be cut down and removed quickly to prevent the disease from spreading, show a slight increase in temperature. This can be spotted by a drone carrying a heat-detecting camera which operates across a range of wavelengths and costs less than $5,000, says Sindhuja Sankaran, a biologist at Washington State University.

Temperature rises are typical in many diseased, parched or nutritionally deficient crops. So drones could have a wider role in keeping crops healthy. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) believes agriculture will be the biggest beneficiary of drones. Japanese farmers have used drones to boost yields by about 15%, the industry group says. It reckons the commercial benefits from drones for the American economy are worth more than $10 billion a year. (From The Economist)

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