Federal rules around drones were loosened late last year, and special permits were issued to a handful of agriculture operators. As that number grows, the impact on the US farm sector will be huge: The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates farmers’ return-on-investment alone may be $12 per acre for corn and $2 to $3 per acre for soybeans and wheat—which is a lot. And the United Nations projects, assuming a global population of 9.1 billion people in 2050, food production will need to rise steadily by about 70 percent. Improving crop yields will be increasingly key to feeding the starving world, in which drones could play a vital role.
The value of drone-powered solutions in agriculture is estimated at $34 billion, according to a recent PwC analysis; drones can improve food production, increase crop yields, and help a farm’s overall productivity rate. More ecologically-minded tech startups like DroneSeed in Seattle, Washington, are already developing plans to plant seeds; they currently use drones to spread fertilizer and spray herbicide with a multispectral camera that allows farmers to take field shots and identify the state of vegetation. Drone-seeding data identifies problem areas in agricultural fields and consequently monitors the level of germination. Afterward, drone-driven soil analysis provides data for proper irrigation and nitrogen-level management.
Vast fields and low efficiency in crop monitoring have always been farming’s largest obstacle. Monitoring challenges are exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable weather conditions, which drive risk and raise field maintenance costs.
Previously, satellite imagery offered the most advanced form of monitoring. But images had to be ordered in advance, could only be taken once a day, and image quality typically suffered. Now drones with hyperspectral, multispectral, or thermal sensors can identify which parts of a field are dry or need improvements.
In recent years, hundreds of companies have entered the forest and farm restoration industry, but now drones can deliver on a definitive promise to restore agricultural lands.