Opinion: drones could become the farmer's new best friend when it comes to monitoring crops and cattle

By Boris Galkin, CONNECT Centre

When people hear about drones, they typically imagine either children's toys or tools of war. However, this perception has become severely outdated over the past few years. Borrowing heavily from the technological innovations that have made the smartphone possible, a new class of camera drone has emerged, which has radically transformed the photography and filmmaking markets. The camera drone is only the beginning, as these flying machines have the potential to benefit many other areas of society beyond the photography sector.

One of these areas will affect all of us and that's agriculture. Consider the problem of growing crops. In addition to the routine tending of plants, a farmer has to constantly monitor the health of the crop for any emerging issues. The speed and accuracy of this analysis will determine whether the farmer can apply the necessary treatment in time which, in turn, will reflect on the crop yield and the productivity of the farm.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, a discussion on how the modern farm is embracing technology

Now imagine that the crop in question spans 300 acres of farmland (approximately 170 football fields). How long would it take the poor farmer to get a comprehensive health survey of the crops? Will the farmer have to recruit additional manpower to survey the plants? Will the farmer have to skip certain areas and hope everything is fine?

What flying drones offer in this situation is the possibility of getting a birds-eye view of the crops and analysing their health indicators quickly. An interesting feature of plants is that they reflect sunlight differently depending on their health so unusual reflections in the near-infrared light spectrum coming from the plants can be an indicator of a health problem. Not only are drone cameras able to "see" these strange light reflections, but their artificial intelligence can be taught to recognise an unhealthy plant automatically.

By flying above an area of interest a drone is able to relatively quickly build a map of where healthy and unhealthy plants are, giving the farmer the opportunity to monitor health progress and quickly react, if necessary. The drone monitoring has the additional advantage of being entirely non-invasive, as the drones fly above the crops and do not physically interact with them in any way. 

Drones and the future of farming via National Geographic

In addition to cameras, the drones in the sky will carry radio equipment to allow them to "talk" wirelessly to devices on the ground, such as computers or remote controls. This wireless connectivity also allows the drone to relay data between devices which may not be able to talk directly to one another, which is a topic we researchers are very interested in here at the CONNECT Centre.

Imagine a scenario where a dairy farmer wants to monitor the health of his cows, so he fits them with health sensors (not too dissimilar to the Fitbit bracelets worn by health-conscious humans today). These devices are small, light and very low-power. This is good as it allows them to be worn by an animal without causing it upset. However, the drawback is that the devices do not have a very large transmit range. Once the cows wander away from the farm buildings the connectivity between the sensors and the computer which monitors the cows will be lost.

A drone tracks a herd of sheep on the move in southeast Turkey. Photo: Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Drones can resolve this issue by flying between the computer and the cows and relaying the data. Some readers may have Wi-Fi repeaters at home to boost the signal from their router to other parts of the house and the same principle applies here. The introduction of these drones can enable the farm to become much more "connected", with distant devices talking to one another, and important information being quickly passed on to the farmer.

But camera sensing and data transmission are not the only tricks drones are capable of. Larger drones are powerful enough to carry additional weight attached to their airframes and can be used to deliver physical goods from points A to B. In a farming context, this means that drones can be used to carry out tasks such as crop spraying.

Promo video for the DJI MG-1S agricultural drone

Referring back to the 300 acre farm above, consider how labour-intensive the process of fumigating against pests must be. An additional difficulty arises from ensuring the exact dosage of the pesticide is applied, as an incorrect amount (or an uneven distribution in the field) can damage the crops.

Just as with the health monitoring example, the benefit of using drones is in the speed, precision, and non-invasiveness of the devices. By flying in a carefully pre-calculated path above the field at a specific speed and at a specific height, the drones can deliver a precise quantity of liquid to the crops, while ensuring a more even coverage of the spray, while also acting faster than a person travelling on-foot. 

As an emerging technology, drones have yet to see widespread adoption by farmers in Ireland. However, we expect this to change as the cost of the devices decreases and the public becomes more receptive to the benefits that drones can offer to society.

Boris Galkin is a PhD researcher at CONNECT in Trinity College Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ