Farmers may soon put “drone-flying” along with “tractor-driving” as a necessary skill.  Drones (or UAV -unmanned aerial vehicles) used to be reserved for military or spying operations.  These days, they are serving a more green purpose, helping farmers to obtain low-altitude aerial views of their property whenever they want. This can help farmers quickly identify stressed crops and pinpoint where water, fertiliser, pest or weed control is required.  They are also used to monitor livestock location and animal health and to identify problems with irrigation equipment.  Drones usually fly anything from a few metres to around 100 metres above ground, so there is no cloud interference and images are much clearer. No wonder that the demand for drones in farming is steadily rising!


Farming drones are usually miniature, multi-bladed helicopters, or fixed-wing airplanes fitted with sensors/cameras. The images they take are converted by software into high-­resolution mosaic maps. The evolution of smaller, cheaper and easier-to-fly drones has arisen from remarkable technological advances in MEMs, GPS, cameras and radios.


The lowering of prices (some are <$1000) and increased availability of drones enables agricultural professionals to quickly gather crop information at a low cost without the long wait to access satellite images or the expense of manned aircraft flights. Drones can take multispectral patterns, NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index), visible and IR views of crops to distinguish between healthy and distressed plants in a way that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The farmer can thus immediately identify issues with crops and take action.


Apart from the imaging, larger drones can also be used to deliver targeted inputs such as chemical sprays and seeds. There is also research into other novel applications such as: delivery of biological control insects like californicus mites onto maize crops affected by leaf-killing spotted mites; predicting crop yields; soil organic matter surveys and even potential for collecting specimens of weeds/insects in the field. 


However, there are still many improvements required before drones fulfil their amazing potential.  This includes improved functionality, software, hardware, and return on investment, as well as training mechanisms.   Fewer restrictions on their agricultural use may be required according to national or state regulations in many countries and in some places, regulations are still to be formulated, causing confusion.

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