Drones Help Precision Agriculture Take off in Australia

Climate change has made life hard for Australian farmers.

From record-setting bushfires to droughts, farmers have lost up to 20% of their profits over the past 20 years due to environmental factors.

With the pandemic-driven disruptions to the global economy, you might think that 2020 has been yet another year of hard hits for Aussie farmers.

Yet, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) forecasted that the winter crop yield will be 44.5 million tonns in 2020–21, which is 11 percent above the average annual level of the past ten years.

What's Going On Here? More Rain in 2020?

It’s true that 2020 hasn’t been quite as brutal as 2019, the hottest and driest year on record for Australia.

But rainfall across Australia was 43% below average in July, so that doesn’t seem to be the biggest thing that has changed. A more likely cause for this accomplishment is that Australia’s farmers improved with precision agriculture over the past few years.

And, as you might guess, drones played a key role in making that possible. 

Drones Improving Agriculture? How So?

The goal of precision agriculture is to optimize returns on inputs while preserving resources like water and chemicals.

To do that, farmers must be able to observe, measure, and respond to tiny variations of outcomes in their crops. For example, Queensland farmers use drones to map their fields of macadamia trees, identify unhealthy ones, and spray the trees at highest risk with fungicide and fertilizer to give them a boost.

According to the drone-manufacturing company XAG, these methods helped Australian farmers reduce water use by up to 90% and chemical use by up to 30%. That’s compared to the status-quo method of using tractor-mounted spray cannons as a spray tool for pest and disease management in macadamia orchards.

XAG drones are also being used to map hard-to-reach locations and drop seeds to restore empty fields.

What Types of Drones are Being Used For Precision Agriculture?

It really depends on the use case.

As a general rule of thumb, fixed-wing UAVs are the best when you want to cover a lot of ground. Alternatively, multirotors are better-suited to precision imaging of small or constrained areas and 3-D scanning of fields and objects, due to their maneuverability. 

When it comes to size, large drones tend to be more costly than small drones, but they’re also more weather-proof and better suited for large areas of coverage. Meanwhile, smaller drones tend to be better suited for activities requiring greater precision; as we’ve noted in another article,

Additionally, Japanese farmers have developed insect-sized drones to pollinate plants as bees do. 

In Australia, farmers and drone-as-a-service (DaaS) companies seem to use a variety of platform sizes and types. For example, Oztech Drones, a Queensland-based DaaS company, uses a 40-kg quadcopter for seeding, and smaller, [fixed-wing] surveying drones for mapping. 

Is Satellite Imagery Likely to Replace Drone Imagery Any Time Soon?

While many farmers use both types, satellite imagery and drone imagery have their pros and cons.

Because drones take a lot of time to survey a large plot of land, satellite companies make compelling offerings for frequent updates on macro-trends.

For instance, Planet Labs, a firm in San Francisco, keeps a fleet of about 30 mini-satellites (measuring a few centimeters across) in orbit. This allows it to provide fresh data to farmers at a relatively affordable rate, though the imagery has a resolution per pixel of only 3.5 meters (about ten feet).

Fitted with the right sensors, drones offer much better resolution, but it’s not usually cost-effective for farmers to gather drone data as frequently as they would like.

What is the Future of Precision Agriculture in Australia?

Right now, it seems like many farmers rely on DaaS companies to perform key precision agriculture functions, but that might change.

Most of Australia’s DaaS companies today are small businesses.

It’s unlikely that they’re working at a large enough scale to offer low prices for their services while still making a profit.

DaaS is appealing to farmers who are in the “experimental” phase of using drone technology, and aren’t ready to invest in an expensive platform and sensors. However, water scarcity might make precision farming more than just a competitive advantage … instead, it may become an absolute necessity.

In that case, it seems like farmers might decide to develop in-house drone solutions

However, if DaaS providers manage to scale up their offerings enough to ensure good quality and prices, it might make more sense for farmers to just just pay someone to provide drones solutions for them.

It’s worth noting that drones are just part of the picture. True, forward-thinking farmers are integrating IoT sensors, satellite data, and other data sources, into their strategies, as each offers unique pros and cons.

The quality and cost of data from these other sources will likely directly impact the role that drones play in data-gathering activities in the future. However, even if IoT sensors and satellites could provide all of the necessary data, farmers would still need a cost-effective method of administering water, insecticide, and fungicide to the plants in need.

And, drones seem particularly well-suited to do just that. 

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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Drones in Agriculture

Drones are increasing productivity and crop yield in the agricultural industry. From real-time data to healthier plants, UAS are literally growing more plants.

There are numerous ways drones are assisting the agriculture industry. 

That’s important for a few reasons. The current population of the world is over 7.6 billion.  And, according to the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, this number will increase by another 2 billion by the year 2050. 

Unfortunately, food distribution is not evenly spread across the globe. However, there is technically enough food to feed all 7.6 billion people. Though, that won’t be the case once an additional two billion people require sustenance.

By some estimates, global food production will need to increase by between 60-100%. The Earth’s entire surface area is around 51.01 billion hectares. To put that into perspective, one hectare equals 2.471 acres. 

Without updating current agricultural practices, doubling the world’s food production would require the clearing of approximately one billion hectares of land… mostly rainforests and savannas. 

Obviously, clearing more land is not a viable solution. The removal of such an enormous amount of forest would certainly have a significant negative impact on climate change. The only hope for meeting the world’s future demands for food is precision agriculture. 

Drones are at the forefront of that movement.

Precision agriculture uses technology to accurately measure and study crop production. The data gained in these observations allows for better crop and farm management. 

As a result, production yields increase without the need to consume more land.

The Role of Drones in Agriculture

Some of the more common agricultural applications for UAVs include pest control, plant health monitoring, livestock management, soil analysis, and aerial survey.

One of the best examples to illustrate successful drones usage in agriculture is plant health monitoring. The health of a farmer’s crops is of critical importance to achieving the highest yields. 

There exists a wide range of circumstances that can adversely affect crop yield. 

Crops are susceptible to pathogens, fungus, and insects. Improper levels of carbon and nitrates in the soil also impact a plant’s productivity. Even a lack of proper water levels can cause an otherwise fertile field to produce lackluster results.

Traditionally, farmers monitored all these conditions through visual observations and soil analysis. 

Visual inspections are very time consuming, and they depend on the observer’s skills at detecting the signs of potential problems. This method is extraordinarily inefficient for large-scale farming operations.

Soil analysis can take even more time than visual inspections. Trained professionals must take samples, which are often analyzed in a laboratory. Inevitably, the time required by this process creates a lag in data. Thus, there is no real-time information available to the farmer as it pertains to the crops on a given day.

UAVs can perform all the above tasks in real-time, utilizing a combination of RBG cameras, thermal imaging, and multi-spectral imaging. With the proper equipment, a drone operator can fly over a field and present the farmer with a full report covering everything from plant count to health conditions.

Drones provide real-time and accurate data that farmers can act on immediately. They are truly a disruptive technology that is at the beginning of revolutionizing precision agriculture as we know it.

Agriculture Drone Solutions - Drone footage - consortiq

The Future

Research and innovation create pathways for drones to assist in agriculture all of the time. 

In Japan, scientists created insect-size drones capable of pollinating flowers in the same manner as bees. The drones use GPS to select the optimal flight path for pollinating all plants in a given area. As the world faces a crisis in dwindling bee populations, drones may very well become a replacement pollinator.

Earlier this year, a team in Canada announced the development of a drone used for planting trees. Using a pressurized air cannon, the team successfully fired small pods of seeds into the ground. The group estimates a single drone operator would be capable of planting 100,000 seed pods per day, with the goal of planting one billion trees by 2028.

The agricultural community is just scratching the surface of what drone technology can provide to the industry. As research continues and engineers find new ways to integrate aerial data collection into farming operations, we are likely to see significant jumps in crop production.

Now is the ideal time for stakeholders and decision makers involved in agriculture to consider the integration of UAS technology into their operations. With low barriers to entry, and the promise of greater efficiencies, it will soon be difficult to imagine successful operations without drones.

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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