In an era of huge technological advances, many industries are reaping the benefits. Agriculture, which has been around for thousands of years and has seen numerous advances, is one of these industries. Through the use of drone and GIS technology, farmers are now able to produce higher yields than ever in the most efficient ways possible. These technologies also save farmers precious time and resources, in the end making their work more profitable. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems has said that eventually agriculture will dominate 80% of the commercial drone market. Drones offer a huge advantage in agriculture without breaking the bank, due to their relatively affordable prices and easily maintained designs.
There is a wide variety of computer software involved in GIS-aided agriculture. There are different types of software, some meant to control and interact with hardware and equipment while other software packages are meant to sort through the huge stores of information gathered up by various technologies discussed further ahead, such as drone aerial photography. Other programs are meant to help a person make sense of this data, show visual representations of it, and assemble it into different formats such as maps of fields for specific times of the year. Companies develop software to fill all of these needs, such as hardware developers working to convert existing tractors into autonomous machines which follow a human operator as he harvests a field with a combine. Other companies offer their services to farmers in order to manage their agricultural data, offering subscription-based packages wherein they interpret a farmer's data and provide them services, such as pest warnings, based on the data provided.
The consideration of farming as a low-tech practice is an outdated idea. A wide array of technologies have been incorporated into farming practices to improve its various facets in order to provide for increasing populations, with the result of making the process more efficient and capable of producing better results. Two sets of technologies have recently found their way into the tool sheds of many farmers that elevate the process to resembling the stuff of science fiction. These modern tools are the overarching usage of GPS in assorted technologies and the application of robotics to existing farming equipment in order to increase efficiency through autonomy.
Through the incorporation of robotic control systems, advanced computers and sensors, and GPS systems alongside specialized software it is possible to convert a tractor into an autonomous machine which can follow alongside a human-operated combine harvester, towing a grain car for the combine to deposit harvested crops into. This turns what would have traditionally been a two-person job into one which can be carried out by a single individual. Roughly speaking this allows for a farmer to harvest his fields with half the manpower and for larger farms with more money to spend on machinery to harvest their fields in half the time with their current pool of manpower. CNNMoney has a video on YouTube demonstrating this technology in practice (CNNMoney, 2013).
Applying GPS equipment and software to other machinery can make a farm operate more efficiently. A GPS-equipped planter, for example, would be aware of where it has already passed through a field and laid down seed. Should the operator double back over an area that the planter has already laid seed in, such as when laying down rows with slight overlap to ensure every part of the field is seeded, the planter disables its dispensers where they would end up placing extra seed. This prevents the field from being overplanted, allowing crops to grow with appropriate space between one another and saves the farmer money due to not using more seed than is actually needed.
Today, most drones employed in agriculture are used for data collection. This data provides information about various subjects such as variable rate application of chemicals and fertilizer and aid in crop monitoring. Drones are emerging as a cost-effective way to collect data with many advantages over other forms. UAVs are compact, can be cheap, are mechanically simple, fly below cloud cover, and are on their way to being easy to operate with advanced autopilot systems. UAVs are improving agriculturalists' data knowledge by using various aspects. GPS is used on UAVs to tell the pilot where it is at all times, while many UAVs in agriculture are being equipped with autopilot to provide essential data with as little effort as possible (Agmapsonline, 2014).
Sensors are the most complicated of aspects for UAV agriculture usage; different data requires different sensors. The most common sensors used in the field include tetracam ADC lite or a digital camera modified to capture an image within its spectrum. The last aspect is also the most time consuming: data processing and integration. The problem with data processing is stitching the collected images together and making one homogenous image. Some of the more common applications to address this problem include Drone Mapper, Agisoft Photoscan, Pix4D, and Microsoft ICE (Agmapsonline, 2014).
Drones are taking place of old technology such as manned aircraft crop imaging. This old version of viewing crops could run anywhere up to $1,000 per session. With drone technology, a farmer can buy an aircraft for as cheap as $1,000 or less. Many of the components in drones have become cheaper thanks to the rise of smart phones. Both smart phones and drones use many of the same technologies including GPS modules, powerful processors, as well as MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensors (MIT Technology Review, 2014).
Drones can save farmers not only resources, but time as well. At one time, farmers had to walk through their fields to monitor the health of their crops. With this new technology, farmers can get the same results that they did walking the fields in a much quivker fashion. Also, they allow farmers to see patterns in the crops that might not be visible to the naked eye such as pest infestations. An infrared view of the crops can be utilized in order to see which areas of the fields may be receiving too much or not enough water or other supplement. This can help in saving water in areas where crop irrigation is used (MIT Technology Review, 2014).
Two platforms exist for UAVs in agriculture: fixed wing and multi-rotor. Fixed wing platforms have the advantage of covering large areas efficiently. For examples of fixed wing UAVs, visit the Airframes page of ConservationDrones.org. Multi-rotors excel in being able to maintain stability in challenging conditions with large loads (ConservationDrones.org, 2012).
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or "drones" as they are often referred to as, are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whose website contains an overview of policies and guidelines. With regards to agricultural uses, the FAA follows a Civil Operations (non-governmental) law called the Section 333 exemption. Section 333 exemption provides private operators with a means to perform commercial operations in low risk, controlled environments. The FAA administrator predicts the exemption will result in economic benefits, improve safety, and discourage illegal activity. Since Section 333 exemption has been made into law in 2012, there have been 5,114 petitions have been granted while 399 petitions have been closed. It is also worth mentioning that the FAA has released a statement regarding the high number of claims for the exemption and that this has caused delays in processing petitions (Section 333, FAA, 2016)
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Drone Tractors Farm by Themselves. CNNMoney. 8 October 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyFqaeg4Eas. Web. Accessed 6 May 2016.
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Section 333. Federal Aviation Administration. 2016. https://www.faa.gov/uas/legislative_programs/section_333/. Web. Accessed 30 April 2016.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in Precision Agriculture. Agmapsonline. 2014. https://agmapsonline.com/2014/01/06/unmanned-aerial-vehicles-uav-in-precision-agriculture/. Web. Accessed 1 May 2016.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations & Policies. Federal Aviation Administration. 2016. http://www.faa.gov/uas/regulations_policies/. Web. Accessed 30 April 2016.