Global food security watchers backing  drones to make a difference

Applying drone technology in crop management (Photo credit – International Agriculture- July 30, 2018)

If it may still be commonplace to see large expanses of farming operations in countries like Guyana still relying on what, these days, is regarded as limited technology, investors in the sector have begun to grasp a better understanding of the role that drone technology can play in bolstering their agricultural pursuits.

So upbeat is the prognosis for the growth of drone applications in farming that the Investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts that in five years, the drone industry could be worth US$100 billion, given the promise they hold in commercial, hobby and government functions. It is in agriculture, however, that the investment bankers see the most potent growth opportunity for drones, their research pointing to an agricultural drone market of around $US5.9 billion in the next five years.  These projections are linked largely to what, even now, is an insatiable global  demand for precision farming tools  with which to drive the growth of the sector.

Advancing technology is already enabling farmers to operate their own drones over thousands of acres of land and have the benefit of a video monitoring facility. Drone technology experts say that soon, farmers can expect to view infrared and visible radiation to calculate crop productivity, enabling the harvesting of more food of a higher quality. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are fitted with thermal cameras that offer enhanced vision for farmers and provide images that support agronomists in decision-making and provide a more reliable tool for monitoring large agricultural outfits.

Agricultural drones have benefitted from the internet and in the process have boosted high-tech and smart farming through the use of sensors. Software solutions have begun to  help farmers to deliver real-time date that have been invaluable in pursuit of increased yields. All of these technologies, including satellite farming are helping to advance the effectiveness of the precision farming market.

Understandably, arising out of the commercialization of agricultural drones and what has become the prohibitive cost of the technology, developed countries, chiefly the United States, decidedly lead the way in the application of drones in the agricultural sector. Currently, the US agricultural drones market accounts for upward of 30 per cent of the overall industry share. Going forward, that share is expected to grow even further. Field mapping application is believed to be the leading segment in the overall agricultural drones market.

With fertilizer application and spraying having become a significant challenge for the farming sector in many developing countries, the crop-scouting capability of drones in the sector is providing invaluable support for farmers in pursuit of perfection and accuracy in fertilizer and pesticides spraying. Utilizing what is known as the  Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), drones are able to detect plants for treatment  with the help of various infra-red sensors. NDVI technology is also used in differentiating the bare soil from grass or forest. UAV’s are also fitted with technology that helps in building topographic maps and providing aerial views of fields.

With the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimating that by 2050 the world will be required to produce 70% more food than it did in 2016, it is widely expected that drone technology will become pressed increasingly into service in the sector.  Even now, in the race to begin to meet what is a significant demand-supply mismatch, individual farmers and  agricultural companies are investing more in drone technology. In some developing countries an aggressive lobby is emerging in the farming sector for more investment in drone-supported agriculture.

While investment costs in drone technology for developing countries with large agricultural sectors (like Guyana) can be high, the cost effectiveness of such investment is widely recognized. What is known in the sector as a ‘starter’ UAV can now be acquired for around US$850. Given the high costs and time associated with largely manual agricultural practices in developing countries, return on investment on UAV’s, given their versatility can be significant.

Earlier this year, an article published by Feed Future, a United States Government hunger and food security initiative listed several services which UAV’s will provide, replacing the various other more strenuous and costly methods that apply mostly in developing countries. These include detecting crop stress and other problems, counting numbers of crops, securing accurate field maps, tracking advanced farming practices, analyzing elevation, water flow and erosion and making more informed decisions for precision agriculture.

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