Harvesting machinery log the yield for each grid section using accurate GPS positioning. Ground based sensors measure and communicate nutrient and moisture levels. Satellites provide increasingly accurate raw data on plant and ground parameters. This is precision agriculture.
These data sources however share one big disadvantage: they only produce data when the satellite happens to scan across the desired region and the cloud cover is minimal; or when the farmer happens to work the field with the tractor or combine.Drones will fill this gap. They can be deployed when and where up to date field information is needed. They can be programmed to work fully autonomously. And they can provide data at a spatial and temporal resolution that is not possible with satellites and tractors.
Laserscanners, multispectral and infrared cameras are shrinking in size and can already be carried by mid-sized drones. Research on the perfect agricultural indicators from these sensors is still ongoing, but NDVI, Red Edge and others already help to tell if a plant suffers from deficiencies or stress that could be alleviated with fertilizers, pesticides or just water.
Given the current operational costs and efforts, these technologies are likely to make more sense in high value crops like vine, tomatoes or blueberries. But someday costs will drop and the technology will be widely adapted so that it will even work for wheat and corn. In any case, as a result farming will become even more efficient. Dosage of fertilizers and pesticides can be optimized and much more targeted. This will reduce waste and environmental impact, reduce costs and increase yields.
Digitalization, drone based applications and big data will impact many other aspects of nature. For example monitoring biomass in forests to determine commercially available wood as well as taking stock of sequestered carbon in relation to climate change protection projects. Or for Wildlife tracking and protection against poachers.
What’s missing is a drone that is robust, works autonomously, doesn’t need a runway and has the endurance to cover large areas carrying the necessary sensors. The JETBIRD, a hybrid drone that flies like a plane but can hover, take off and land vertically like a helicopter will be able to do just that. It features a novel ducted fan concept that allows for a very compact design and significantly increased safety. The JETBIRD is expected to have its maiden flight late in 2016.
Visit Cooper Copter at CeBIT 2016, Halle 16, Stand D36.