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The Role of UAVs in Agriculture

The increasing relevance of Unmanned Aviation (UA) across almost every market segment has finally reached beyond projection and is now a fact, and whilst the idea of drone-related services cannot be considered ‘novel’ at this point, the extent of the beneficial interest they can offer appears ever-expanding. From logistics to medicine, monitoring and disaster prevention, mitigation and relief, the promises offered by UA systems appear endless, but nowhere has their actual presence been as felt as in the agricultural sector. UA systems of course possess the capability to acquire aerial images of fields in exceptionally clear detail, offering comprehensive insights into the health of crops, growth patterns, and variations spanning an entire field. This utilisation of UAV technology can further aid farmers in various essential activities, including land levelling, planning drainage systems, and identifying discrepancies in soil properties.

Through this novel synergy, precision agriculture, also known as precision farming or smart farming - a technology-enabled and data-driven sustainable agricultural management system - was born. This novel community of systems and stakeholders is aimed at reducing production costs, minimising the adverse environmental effects of large-scale agricultural operations and lastly, increasing the quality of the end product as well as operational productivity and profitability. UAV-enabled precision agriculture additionally leverages new artificially intelligent (AI) systems, machine learning (ML) technologies, specialised equipment, and state-of-the-art telecommunications to enable real-time data collection and analysis, in order to assist producers by quickly relaying complete information on the stages of production, plant health, potential issues and even assisting with decision making and solutions for any potential problems, prior to their manifestation.

In this novel approach to farming, advanced and multi-input sensors integrated upon UA systems, are deployed in agricultural land to carry out a number of functions; monitoring soil nutrients, moisture, temperature, humidity, and light intensity with real-time precise and accurate measurements, being the most common ones. This data provides the farmers with a detailed understanding of the field conditions that would otherwise require a large number of work hours from specialised personnel spent on site. More specifically, UA systems can be utilised to detect early signs of crop diseases, pests, or nutrient deficiencies by analysing plant characteristics such as leaf colour, texture, and growth patterns, enabling farmers to take prompt action, such as targeted pesticide application or adjusting nutrient levels, thus preventing further damage, and protecting crop yield, in a more accurate and efficient manner.

Similar function can be utilised in identifying and mapping areas of infection within a field, facilitating efficient and precise disease control strategies. Monitoring overall crop health can also be accomplished through the identification of variations in soil characteristics, including moisture levels and nutrient distribution, helping farmers make informed decisions about land levelling and drainage planning, improving overall crop productivity and water management.

This advanced technological ecosystem is increasingly being practically tested for use in field and crop monitoring, spraying of pesticides and drip irrigation. Indeed, due to a relatively welcoming regulatory environment governing UA-enabled precision agriculture, at least when contrasted to other drone-related use cases, and an impressive willingness on the side of the industry to adapt to and integrate these systems into their normal operations, drones and farming use-cases have become synonymous in the past two years, with the two major applications being crop monitoring and infection management.

This modern agricultural framework, developed through projects like SmartVitiNet, engages the entirety of the production value chain to support farmers in all phases of production, optimising standard operating procedures, reducing the literal financial and metaphorical ecological costs of agriculture and enhancing the labour market by establishing producers as stakeholders in these novel economic markets.

The integration of UA systems in precision agriculture has the capacity to completely revolutionise farming practices in only a short number of years. With the ongoing advancements in drone technology and the continued collaboration between the agricultural and UAV industries, the potential for further innovation and application in farming is promising!


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