Can efficiencies increase if we farm from the sky?

Drone Farming


This past spring the US Federal Aviation Administration gave clearance for the use of drones for agriculture purposes, approving Yamaha’s RMAX drone helicopter to spray crop fields (it has been in use for 20 years in Japan). Although this approval comes with a long list of provisions, it could be the tipping point for a whole new form of agriculture innovation and technology, drone farming. There are always unknowns and a learning curves when adopting new technologies, nonetheless there are also opportunities to reach the new efficiency levels. It was reported at the 2014 GrowCanada Conference that precision agriculture can trigger savings of $30,000 a year due to reduced overlap spraying to a mere two inches, compared to twelve inches from conventional spraying.

North American farmers own and rent equipment and in some cases hire custom operators for seeding and spraying, so why would producers consider using drones? Efficiency is why. Current drone technology might not be ideal for large production, however as technology advances beyond the current GPS and sensory systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) could offer a variety of opportunities. UAVs can easily move within areas that trouble conventional sprayers and can precision spray without the need to spray an entire field. UAV spraying also offers the opportunity to spray without soil disruption, which is optimal for some fungicide and insecticides that are best applied after a heavy rainfall. Air-spraying is faster and producers need not worry about getting their equipment stuck.

Drones are already used in other countries for agricultural purposes besides efficient spraying. They have been used to survey fields, measure growth (which is difficult in person for crops like corn) and for the scouting of wet, dry, diseased and infested areas. In addition, they are an alternative means of herding animals, counting and taking temperatures with thermal sensors. There is significant potential for drones to have substantial efficiencies in the use of irrigation and the production of fruits and vegetables as the drone can use infrared cameras to sense when the plants are being drought-stressed, which then triggers the irrigation system. In areas where water scarcity is an increasing concern, this technology has great potential.

The approval of agricultural drones in the US for spraying crops may be the innovation which changes how North Americans farm in the future. Who knows, perhaps innovations will lead producers to be able to spray, survey, sample or possibly even seed from the comforts of their own control room.

Please take the time to tell us what you think about the future of drone farming.

 We would also like to hear from our producers, consumers, and industry what concerns do you have with agricultural drone use?

What other uses would you like to see drones adapted to for agricultural purposes?


Savannah Gleim

Savannah joined Dr. Smyth's research team in the fall of 2014 and since has been an active member managing, editing, and writing for SAIFood. Prior to joining the SAIFood team, she completed her M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics and B.Sc. Agribusiness from the University of Saskatchewan.


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