Food and society

Drones: technology for the benefit of sustainable agriculture

Once reserved for military use, drones are quickly entering civilian life, and particularly in innovative agriculture which is undergoing a significant change, becoming increasingly technological and efficient.

Although they looked rather futuristic at the time, drones have been used in agriculture since 1980 when Japan used them to help spread fertilisers. Back then however they were extremely simple prototypes which looked very different from the ones available today, incorporating sophisticated technology and algorithms, and revolutionising every aspect of innovative farming. According to estimates in the Clarity from above report produced by a group of experts at PwC focusing on “Drone powered solutions”, the value of drones and their use in various commercial sectors now exceeds $127 billion. Sustainable agriculture is undoubtedly one of the sectors where drones have the most potential and could contribute to bringing about the transformation which the agro-food system absolutely must face up to. With an estimated value to the agricultural sector of over $34 billion, drones are a key resource in the quest to achieve the ultimate goal of truly sustainable agriculture. 

From preparing the land….

The positive effect of drones on innovative agriculture is already evident during the land and seeding preparation stage. Indeed, thanks to these tools it is possible to produce accurate 3D maps which enable the soil to be analysed and can be used to improve the planning of seeding areas. Moreover, systems based on drones are now available for planting seeds in the ground: unlike traditional sowing methods, the new technique allows the seeds and the nutritious substances which enable them to germinate to be placed directly into the ground in exactly the right location. This system allows farmers to achieve 75% rooting, thus reducing planting costs by 85% and increasing sustainability. Finally, using hyperspectral and multispectral imaging or specific thermal sensors, these innovative agriculture tools are able to accurately indicate which parts of the field require water or where an adjustment of nutrients is needed. 

…to checking the product

Once the planting is complete, the growing stage begins, which is very difficult to keep under control using traditional methods: for instance, satellite images cannot be obtained frequently (and also need to be requested in advance) and may not be clear enough to give a definitive answer to farmers’ questions. This is where drones come in, as they can be used to survey a field several times a day and regularly provide an enormous amount of data, which when combined with other information on the seeds and the land, can also indicate the best moment to start the harvest. 

In the context of sustainable agriculture, reducing the use of pesticides is undoubtedly one of the key objectives, and once again, drones can make the difference. 

Thanks to accurate ground scanning, drones can ensure a constant distance between plants, direct liquid with precision and adjust the quantity released in real time. With this method, the doses of pesticides which reach the water table are significantly reduced, and the time needed for such operations is five times faster than is required with traditional techniques.  


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