Written by Emily Bishop for Tyto Robotics
Since their introduction as an industrial tool, the number of use cases for drones has multiplied exponentially, and agriculture is one industry where they can cause the most disruption. In fact, Globe Newswire reports that the global market for agricultural drones will be worth 15.2 billion USD in 2027.
But what technologies are driving this market to develop and what face will they take in 2023? We dive into these questions below.
Table of contents:
- Watering and crop dusting
- Planting and seeding
- Field and plant health monitoring
- Sustainable farming
Watering and crop dusting
The first crop dusting drone on the market was manufactured by Yamaha in 1987. It had a helicopter design and could carry a payload of up to 15 kg for spraying rice paddies, orchards and pine trees with protective pesticides.
Today, the design of these drones is becoming increasingly streamlined. Hylio's flagship AG-110 drone has a max take-off weight of 54.9 lbs, and the largest model, the AG-122, can carry up to 5.8 gallons of liquid. It comes with fleet control software that can coordinate the movements of multiple drones over a large area. The majority of agricultural drones follow a multi-rotor design — which was previously defined in Tyto Robotics’ guide to the different types of drones.
This developing technology is slowly eliminating “drift,” ensuring that sprayed products go where they need to and ultimately making the process more cost-efficient. Increased adoption will also increase safety for agricultural workers, who are exposed to harmful chemicals when manually spraying crops.
Planting and seeding
Startups around the world are also using drones for reforestation. These drones can fire seeds over a wide area in a small amount of time. The industry faces several challenges, however: due to the inconsistencies in natural landscapes, seeds hit stones, roll down hillsides, or are eaten by local wildlife, and therefore may not take root.
This isn't the case with farming agriculture. Farmlands are constantly tilled and maintained, leaving acres of fallow and fertile ground for seeds to grow. Chinese company XAG has been working on seeding drones since 2020. In April of that year, the XAG drone completed a rice-planting demonstration in which it seeded an average of 50,000 square meters of land per hour. Two farm workers who worked alongside it covered only 1,200 square meters in 25 minutes.
Some developments to look forward to in 2022 include software that helps drones determine optimal areas for seeding, as well as drones used for pollinating crops.
Field and plant health monitoring
Drones play a significant role in precision agriculture, which uses constant crop monitoring to determine how inputs must be used to maximize efficiency and yield. Here, the drone’s aerial view helps farmers spot issues like pests and disease far faster than at ground level. Meanwhile, software developers like Intellias and drone manufacturers like senseFly are helping drones determine the effectiveness of ongoing crop treatments.
According to this November 2020 study, existing prototypes across the industry use advanced sensors to map fields, providing details like field elevation, drainage patterns, and even nitrogen levels in the soil. This data can help farmers use fertilizer more cost-efficiently, eliminate dry spots, and ultimately decide which treatments work best on each crop — before yield loss occurs. According to one senseFly customer, this can reap an ROI of about $9 per acre in terms of fertilizer use alone. With the ongoing rollout of 5G networks, Innovation Origins expects drones to increasingly transmit data in real-time, rather than storing data before users upload it to the cloud manually.
Sustainable farmingMoving forward, agricultural drones will only make farming more efficient, productive, and sustainable. They significantly reduce operational costs by automating laborious tasks and ensuring materials are used more efficiently. Yields can be maximized with the help of drone cameras and data analytics software. Drones can also help agricultural operations shift to using more sustainable energy sources.
This can be seen in the development of solar drones, which provide continuous power in flight. Solar panels are extremely reliable, and their durability means they can last for more than 25 years. A separate study even notes that they're the cheapest electricity source in history. Companies like XSun are currently working on solar-powered, self-contained drones. Once they hit the markets, they're certain to be a worthy investment in any agricultural business.
Ultimately, drones are poised to disrupt agriculture by streamlining various processes and saving workers’ time, money, and energy. As we head into 2022, we can only expect these developments to become more mainstream and make a more tangible impact in the industry.