Drones and precision farming

Drones are projected to be mostly utilized for precision agriculture and public safety (police, medical and fire departments). One industry group projects an $82 billion economic impact from drones operating in the U.S. in 2015-2025.

Precision agriculture management practices can significantly reduce the amount of nutrient and other crop inputs used while boosting yields. Farmers thus obtain a return on their investment by saving on phytosanitary and fertilizer costs. The second, larger-scale benefit of targeting inputs—in spatial, temporal and quantitative terms—concerns environmental impacts. Applying the right amount of inputs in the right place and at the right time benefits crops, soils and groundwater, and thus the entire crop cycle. Consequently, precision agriculture has become a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture, since it respects crops, soils and farmers. Sustainable agriculture seeks to assure a continued supply of food within the ecological, economic and social limits required to sustain production in the long term. Precision agriculture therefore seeks to use high-tech systems in pursuit of this goal.

On farm research has shown that farmers who use precision nitrogen management alone have reported increased net returns that vary from $17 per acre to $54 per acre. There are some cases of increasing crop yield by 15% while reducing fertilizer usage by 40%. Water usage can be improved and harvesting can be more precisely timed.

The costs of the computing and sensor components needed to build a drone’s autopilot—the hardware and software system that navigates and communicates—are dropping rapidly. “We’re having this homebrew computer club moment, where suddenly we can offer military-grade technologies for toy prices,” said Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, when he spoke at a packed event about commercial drones at Stanford University earlier this year. After he left Wired, Anderson founded a company, 3D Robotics, that sells simple ready-to-fly unmanned vehicle systems that cost as little as $599, and DIY kits for less.

Airware’s Linux-based autopilot, at a cost of $4,000 to $7,000, is meant to make it easy to manufacture drones that could easily be customized by customers or third-party developers who want to build apps or integrate new kinds of sensors.

Airware’s early work provides a glimpse into some realms where commercial drone technology holds promise, which many expect to include agriculture, infrastructure maintenance, and law enforcement. Its first customer, Delta Drone, in France, makes drones that are being used to assist both skier search-and-rescue teams and a surface­-mining company. A Kenya nonprofit has worked with Airware to integrate RFID tag readers into a drone that helps track endangered rhinos and monitor poaching. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is using Airware’s software to develop drones that can deliver small bundles of vaccines to regions with poor road networks.

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