When reading about civilian use of drones, it is only a matter of time before one is confronted with heaps of references to precision agriculture. Chris Anderson, co-founder of 3D Robotics, says drones play a big part in the future of farming where the focus is on reducing inputs while improving yields.
Precision agriculture has been around roughly since the military encryption was removed from GPS satellite signals, providing free access to location signals with good-enough accuracy. Harvesters, for example, started to be fitted with data loggers that kept track of volume by time and location. Satellite imagery and photos from full scale aircraft were put to use in understanding field and crop conditions.
What is changing now is the fact that dwindling costs enable a whole new approach. More data, with higher accuracy can be gathered with higher frequency and analyzed more rapidly. The results can be presented in ways that support decision making and actions: Fixing or adjusting equipment, changing irrigation schedules, applying fertilizers or other compounds, digging canals for water run-off etc. The prospect for the future is that by deploying a small fleet of autonomous drones equipped with sensors, farmers can gather a detailed daily overview of how crops are doing – at a fraction of the cost involved with conventional aerial photography or subscribing to satellite imagery.
How is data gathered? How are maps produced? What role does multi-spectrum and hyper-spectral imaging play? How can LIDAR help? This video from a conference at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture in August 2013 is one of the best all-round introductions to the field. The presentation was given by Arko Lucieer, a remote sensing scientist who is part of the Terraluma project.