Agricultural drones: the new farmers' market-I
By Katia Moskvitch
Engineering and Technology Magazine
More and more drones are skittering through rural skies, taking snapshots of the fields and providing farmers with various data about the soil and crops. Are they really necessary or just the latest gadget craze? Ryan Kunde sits in his home on the outskirts of Sebastopol in southern California, sipping Pinot Noir. It comes from his own DRNK Winery, with its 100-metre cave burrowed alongside vineyards and a golf course. At 33, he’s the fifth generation of the Kunde family, well known in the Californian wine industry for producing high-quality wine for over a century. He runs the business with his wife Katie and her parents, Dale and Nancy. “Hence the label,” he chuckles. “DRNK - for the four of us: Dale, Ryan, Nancy, and Katie”. However, Kunde is the first in his family to delegate some responsibilities to an assistant. “Spidey is great. He really helps me to sample the vineyards much, much better,” he says. Spidey is oblivious to the praise, and he also won’t ask for a pay rise for all his hard work. His official name is X8 and he is a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and with its several propellers it looks and buzzes like an oversized hornet. Built by US drone maker 3D Robotics in Berkeley, California, Spidey hovers over Kunde’s vineyards day in and day out, taking high resolution images. Over the past several years, Kunde’s drones have helped him to refine his sampling of the vineyard, pinpointing from high above where exactly the grapes have ripened to perfection, and where the soil has plenty of water - or not. “When trying to differentiate these zones on the ground, it is much more difficult to tell where they begin and end,” he says. “Using image analysis, I can quantify the exact area of these different growing regions.” Kunde is on the forefront of farmers ditching the traditional, long-established approach to agriculture in favour of new technology, and that’s much needed. By 2050, Earth will be home to an estimated 9.6 billion people, and they all must be fed. A few years back, autonomous flying machines were mainly associated with the Pentagon fighting wars in far-away countries. Today, fleets of drones can be found in agriculture, monitoring crops and even beginning to spray fields with pesticides. Just recently, a New Zealand farmer used a UAV to round up his sheep. Unaffordable for many just a few years back, a drone able to fly for at least half an hour and sporting a camera for aerial imaging can now be bought for around $1000 or less. By 2020, in the US alone there will be some 20,000 UAVs scurrying through the sky, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts. And according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade group that represents makers and users of drones, about 80 per cent of the commercial market for drones will be for agricultural use. One big beneficiary could be farmers in developing countries, says Steven Brumby, co-founder of Descartes Labs, a firm that analyses remote sensing data, because they “need to cover very large areas as cheaply as possible”. In the past, when farmers had smaller fields, they knew which areas had enough water, or were ready to harvest, just by walking around their land. However, to stay connected with today’s much bigger parcels of farm land, they need precision agriculture, with crop management that relies on GPS and big data analytics to increase yields and profits while cutting down on pesticide and water use.