Can Drones Benefit Small-Scale Agriculture?

“Drones,” “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (UAS), or “Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV)” have been making the news almost daily.  UAV’s have not just been flying overhead, but they have been busy delivering burritos, pizzas, and even beer (although not all of these activities were legal).  These platforms are not just recreational devices or delivery mechanisms.  They also serve as important data collectors and can support an array of sensors and applications.

So, have you ever wondered what precipitated the commercial applications of drones?  Certainly, the military deserves lots of credit.  But the tsunami of drone platforms and options that are available for purchase by everyday consumers and mapping companies likely has its roots with a gadget that permeated across society a few years back – your handy smartphone. The development of smartphones was a result of improvements, miniaturization, and synchronization of many of the technical components (batteries, GNSS receivers, processors, cameras, etc.) that are also found in the internal workings of today’s drones.  Through the evolution of smartphone technology, these technical components got smaller and more powerful, and they also all worked together better and more seamlessly. So basically, if you attached some wings and a little propeller to your smartphone, you’d have a good start on an unmanned aircraft.

Many organizations, including public, private, and other non-profit/NGO’s, recognize the potential benefits of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) to support communities, clients, and stakeholders.  These benefits are associated with the ability of the sUAS to “look down” and collect data about vegetation, the terrain, and other features.  This data can be captured in many forms. Some examples include orthomosaiced imagery, videography, elevation data, and vegetation indices. Data collected from sUAS can be used to support decision making and increase efficiencies in many fields and across an array of applications.

In the past, decision-makers have been reliant on existing and available aerial imagery. Often, imagery data sources were used, not because they were the most appropriate data to support a particular application, but because they were “simply better than any other available imagery option.” The imagery, for example, might have been captured in less than optimal conditions (including temporal conditions, spectral and spatial resolution, etc.) for the application at hand.

One major advantage of sUAS derived data, is that sUAS operators can acquire “data on demand,” meaning that data can be captured when it is needed.  Sensors, temporal characteristics, resolution, and other thresholds can be established in direct support of the application at hand.  Stakeholders are no longer left to use the “best data available,” as they can tailor the data collection efforts to directly support specific application demands.  This is what is meant by “data on demand.”

sUAS provides an integrated system and is often comprised of a set of tools, that includes the: flight planning software, aircraft, sensors, processing software, and other tools (GPS receivers, etc.) that professionals can carry in the back seat of their cars.  Larger agricultural producers have been successfully employing UAS to support their application demands. However, it remains to be seen whether smaller scale producers can efficiently and cost-effectively utilize imagery collected from sUAS as well. We just do not have a clear understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and benefits of sUAS operations for smaller scale agricultural producers.