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Drone in agriculture: applications and their future

drone in agriculture

Introduction to Agricultural Drones


Why should farmers and cooperative be interested in drones? in this article we are going to explain why more and more we are hearing and talking about drones, but if we have to sum it up in a few concepts here is a list of 8 applications:

  1. Nutritional monitoring

  2. Water status monitoring

  3. Soil mapping

  4. Generation of prescription maps for fertilization, irrigation, and plant protection products

  5. Distribution of auxiliary insects (used in organic farming but also in integrated and conventional farming)

  6. Distribution of fertilizer and plant protection products

  7. Agricultural insurance

  8. Agricultural Certification and supply chain control


Let's start with the basics, drones are nothing more than means of transportation, and they alone have no potential application in agriculture. But if they are equipped with special cameras or fluid or solid distributors, then they become our allies. Also to be able to use a drone in agriculture need to have a license, insurance and registration, just like a car.


Types of Drones Used in Agriculture


The use of drones in agriculture can be classified differently according to their application or type.


Classification based on the application


Based on the type of application we have two main categories of application fo drones in agriculture, which are Survey and Distribution of agronomic inputs.


Surveys conducted to identify biotic and abiotic crop stresses. The drones used here are equipped with different types of cameras that can be multispectral (the most commonly used), hyperspectral, and thermal. Using these surveys, it is possible to identify in which portions of the field there is greater vegetative growth, increased temperatures, and easily identify the weed in a field. In this case, the data from these surveys must be processed and interpreted by experienced agronomists who have experience in photogrammetry and spectrometry. In addition, it is essential to perform specific processing such as data segmentation in order to perform analyses on crop rows only. Here below is one our elaboration done in Moie - Italy - Marche.


Image Segmentation

Distribution of agronomic inputs, In this case, drones replace the use of agricultural vehicles for the distribution of auxiliar insects, fertilizers and agropharmaceuticals. Basically, these drones are equipped with hoppers that allow the drone to be loaded with the input to be deployed, and then at specified times they are released into the environment. Until recently, European regulations prohibited the distribution of plant protection products in the environment, but as of today through certain authorizations, one can proceed with their distribution if one has suitable UAV patents.


DJI Agras t50

Classification based on the drones type


Based on the drones type we have four main categories of drone type, which are Multi-Rotor and Fixed-Wind, Single rotor and hybrid VTOL.


Multi-rotor drones are the most popular drones used in agriculture. They allow vertical landing and takeoff, and they are used both to do photogrammetric surveys and to do agronomic input distribution. Do not allow you to cover hundreds of hectares but they are the ones you will see most in rural areas.


Multi rotor UAV Drones

Fixed-Wind, These drones have the ability to be able to survey large areas in a single flight. They do not have a vertical takeoff or landing but are assisted by us during takeoff. They are very interesting but still today the prices of these drones are very prohibitive. They can be equipped with multispectral camera.


fixed wind

Single rotor, are drones that are like helicopter. They are not so famous yet in the agriculture domain but they could be used for input agronomic distribution cause they can carry a really large weight.


Single rotor

hybrid VTOL, These drones are not as famous as multi-rotor drones, but they can cover thousands of acres of relief because of their ability to take off vertically and then be able to do a flight like fixed-wing drones. It basically combines the major advantages of both types of drones. They are very expensive but have enormous potential.


hybrid VTOL

Type of camera equipped in drone used in agriculture


As previously mentioned, drones by their very nature are means of transport, and therefore on their own they would not have any potential use in agriculture, but if they are equipped with special cameras, they can be very useful in agriculture. Below we make a list of special cameras used in agriculture and some practical examples of their use, which are:


Multispectral Camera


Multispectral cameras are the most used, famous and studied cameras in agriculture. They have been used for decades for scientific research because they have great application capacity. In fact, today they are also installed in satellites to carry out constant monitoring in the agricultural field. These cameras have the enormous capacity of being able to calculate vegetation indices (like NDVI) starting from multispectral bands and allow the crop growth monitor. An example is shown below, where we made many multispectral surveys over a wheat field.


NDVI vegetation index durum wheat

Starting from these drone images it is then possible to create prescription maps that allow the agronomic inputs to be distributed in a differentiated manner. Here below the prescription map applied to the same field.



Thermal Camera


Thermal images are of absolute importance for the management of irrigation of agricultural companies, in fact they return a map which shows the temperature of the leaves. In fact, when a plant carries out photosynthesis, it has opened its stomata and exchanges gases with the outside, and this allows it to cool the temperature of the leaf. But when under water stress, as a conservative strategy, the plants close the stomata and deny gaseous exchange, raising the temperature of the leaf. This rise in leaf temperature can be detected by thermal cameras. In fact, as a rule, plants are under water stress when the temperature of the leaf is higher than that of the air.


Below we leave you an example of a thermal map that allows you to identify the cool areas and the hot areas, and obviously the areas with a high temperature are related to significant water stress.


Thermal image

Hyperspectral Camera


Hyperspectral imaging is the future of spectrometry in agriculture. They are very advanced optics that have already been used in other contexts such as:

  1. Know the composition of the planets

  2. Identification of anomalous molecules in foods

  3. Material inspection

And today these cameras are slowly making their debut in agriculture too. hyperspectral cameras can be used for various applications that other cameras cannot do:

  1. Identify nutritional stresses, for example identifying whether nitrogen or phosphorus or potassium is lacking

  2. Identify the presence of pathologies

  3. Do soil organic carbon mapping

However, they have important defects that are slowing down their applications in agriculture, and they are:

  1. Very expensive, costs around 50-100k euros

  2. The data generated is immense, and therefore their storage and processing is not so obvious or easy

  3. A very high level of competence is needed to be able to carry out specific processing


Below we leave you an image that shows what a hyperspectral image, or a data cube, actually is.


hyperspectral image

Drone vs satellite: David vs Goliath


In order to fly over our fields, there are not only drones, but rather every day without our knowledge, satellites constantly pass over our fields, generating data of absolute importance for agronomic management.


if you want to learn more about satellite and their application in agriculture, visit this article


But which technology should i use? drone or satellite? Let's check what the advantages of one and the other are, so that we have a full overview.


With drones we can do surveys whenever we need them, weather permitting, with a ground resolution ( 1 cm2 ) that satellites ( 9 m2 ) still cannot provide us with today, but on the other hand to do a survey with a drone we need:

  • buy a drone

  • purchase a camera of those previously mentioned

  • have an appropriate license for the operation

  • get a drone insurance

  • vehicle registration

  • charge batteries, head to the site on which to survey

  • perform the survey

  • perform the entire processing phase

and at the end we have a high resolution images and all these steps is an expensive activity that needs special expertise.


Whereas with satellite, all you have to do is access, from the comfort of your home, download the satellite image and perform processing on it. With zero cost and risk, but at the same time, we have:

  • lower spatial resolution up to 100 m2 compared to drone survey

  • we have a satellite image every 5 days


satellite vs drone

So the choice depends on the budget but mostly on the crop and how it is grown, so to be clear let us give you a couple of examples:

  • a cereal crop, so open field, the use of satellite imagery it's ok.

  • of horticultural crops, on the other hand being row crops for the most part, perhaps where there is also a mulch, the use of drone imagery is recommended, because be have a suitable ground resolution to be able to distinguish crop, mulch and inter-row.

  • a vineyard with a row spacing of about 2 meters or more only drone or very high resolution satellite imagery from 3 meters down is recommended


Who will win drone or satellite for the future?


with no doubt it will win satellites for crop monitoring but for agronomic input applications the drone will be a viable alternative and one that will have much room in the future.


In fact, many of the drone manufacturers are gradually giving more attention in research and development to drones that can carry large weights to be able to do agronomic input applications very similar to agricultural tractors


So for the future there will be fewer and fewer drones for monitoring and more and more drones for agronomic input distribution.


Key Benefits of Drones for Farmers


Surely you are wondering what the benefits are for a farm to access such data? There are many, and below, we are going to list a number of tangible benefits of using drones in agriculture:

  1. Crop growth monitoring

  2. Water status monitoring

  3. Define the soil sample points and digital soil mapping.

  4. Generation of prescription maps for fertilization, irrigation, and plant protection products

  5. Distribution of auxiliary insects (used in organic farming but also in integrated and conventional farming)

  6. Distribution of fertilizer and plant protection products

  7. Agricultural insurance

  8. Agricultural Certification and supply chain control


Case Studies: Successful Drone Implementations


Here below we will show you how different farmers used our drone survey services for their applications.


Solomeo

At Solomeo, multispectral surveys were conducted on a 6-hectare vineyard in the 2023 vintage, and these data were used to:

  • identify the different zones of leaf development

  • Plan differentiated organic fertilizations

  • Determine mixtures of legumes and grasses to be included in the row spacing


Segmentation

Sarteano


In Sarteano a vineyard of more than 12 hectares, a multispectral survey was carried out in order to identify:

  • zones of differentiated development

  • plan for differentiated collections

  • Plan differentiated organic fertilizations

  • Determine mixtures of legumes and grasses to be included in the row spacing


Sarteano

Recanati


In Recanati, multispectral surveys were conducted on durum wheat during the 2020-2021 crop year, and these surveys were used to create prescription maps for seeding and fertilization

Recanati

Moie

A multispectral survey was conducted in Moie over more than 10 hectares to

  • zones of differentiated development

  • plan for differentiated collections

  • Plan differentiated organic fertilizations

  • Determine mixtures of legumes and grasses to be included in the row spacing


Image Segmentation

University of Perugia

Very advanced experiments on the use of satellite imagery to identify biotic and abiotic vine stresses have been conducted at some of the wineries involved by the unverisity of perugia.


Multispectral Survey - Perugia University

Explore with us the potential of use of drone in agriculture


Do you also want to perform a drone survey? We provide not only a survey, but also specific processing accompanied by agronomic consulting, implemented to bring the analysis conducted on the acquired images into the field.


If you would like more information please contact us below



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