Flying Farmers – Future Agriculture:
Precision Farming with microdrones


Multicopters automatically create multispectral maps, agricultural machines roll over the fields without a driver and spray infested crops with pesticides: What seems like a scene of a James Bond movie is already daily routine for many farmers worldwide.

The agricultural sector is »plowed up«: A revolution towards automation takes place in one of the oldest and most important sectors of humanity. Keyword Precision Farming – meaning the targeted and site-specific management of farm land. According to a survey conducted by the Technical University of Munich and the DLZ – agricultural magazine in 2014, over 80 percent of farmers in Germany use electronic documentation systems in crop production.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAV) make an important contribution to the technological revolution in agriculture. Equipped with several sensors and microcontrollers, NIR and multispectral cameras, GPS receivers and many more, they support farmers in the efficient use of plant protection products, providing important data on the type of soil and protecting wildlife from death. The use of microdrones in agriculture has a huge potential and a wide-ranging field of applications. 

The advantages of the use of UAVs in agriculture are obvious: Due to their capacity of starting and landing absolutely vertically they can interact in a very small or hard to reach space. In addition, some information are easier to get out of the air and give the farmer a meaningful picture of the state of the plant and the soil thanks to various sensors.
The following report gives an insight in existing application scenarios and offers an outlook on the near future of agriculture.


Precise crop-management with microdrones

In times of a growing global population and progressing climate change, farmers are more and more concerned about the sustainable management of the farmland: On the one hand how to protect the environment and on the other hand how to supply the people of tomorrow enough food without unnecessarily straining the earth. Where a farmer’s »green fingers« once were essential for a good harvest, it now are microdrones that will optimize the agricultural land to optimal management and protect us from famine in the future.


Agricultural and vineyard automation: Pest control

One third of the annual harvest worldwide is lost due to pests and fungal infestation. Today, thanks to the latest technology the farmer can take early countermeasures and actively work against the threat of crop loss. On the field UAVs equipped with multispectral cameras determine the pest infestation of plants – even before the leaves wilt. With the microdrones technology an efficient and environmentally field management is already possible today.

This md4-1000 is equipped with a multispectral camera that can deliver data on humus content, the irrigation condition or stone and weed content at the surface

In Japan unmanned flying objects are used for precise spraying of rice plants for a number of years. The method is more efficient and ecofriendly for the farmer than using an agricultural machine or even a helicopter with a human pilot on board.

In the viniculture microdrones asserted themselves as vineyard-managers of tomorrow. Wine-growers often struggle with the fungal infestation of the vines growing on steep slopes. In addition, the regions are very difficult to prepare. The microdrones can flex all their muscles at this point: They are able to fly in the remotest corner to the exact spot of the fungal infestation and specifically tackle the disease.

microdrones -  vineyard-manager of tomorrow.
Vineyard automation with microdrones.

In advance, the UAVs determine accurately the points where pesticides may be used or whether there is a lack of water. The wine-grower can act purposefully and early without losing harvest or the necessity of spraying the entire vineyard. The German Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Consumer Protection already supported the use of drones in vineyards with a total of 800,000 Euros since 2011.

Another scenario: In earlier times, rooks were a major problem. The greedy birds looted much of the seed and caused a devastating damage. Today a flying platform serves to deter the animals while at the same time provides important analysis of the condition of soils.

Other advantages are that the UAV constantly holds its position and can be controlled exactly by GPS waypoint system. They can also be used for site-specific fertilization without heavy machines burdening the soil and giving off emissions. The opportunities for flying agricultural workers are almost unlimited and attractive even for smaller businesses.


UAV-supported
study of soil

Studies already report on the devastating consequences of the massive use of pesticides: According to Soil Atlas of 2015 of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, European cropland has lost around 45 percent of its organic matter (humus and soil organisms) due to agricultural use. Nevertheless, the use of fertilizers increases worldwide: While in 1960 the use of fertilizer per hectare was below 50 kilograms, in 2020 it already will be around 200 kilograms per hectare. The massive use of fertilizers has disastrous consequences for the ecosystem and thus for the food supply of the future.

Using microdrones, the massive use of fertilizers can be reduced: They collect important and multifaceted data of the state of the fields and help the farmers to work targeted, ecological and profitable. The possibilities are extremely various and meet the most diverse requirements. The main method in this context is remote sensing, providing meaningful data of the state of the soil.

Multispectral image made with an md4-1000 showing the population density of plants of an agricultural area

Providing aerial images of the fields, microdrones give important information of the condition and the degree of maturity based on the color saturation of the plants. In advance of planting, the data of microdrones give an insight into the location productivity, for example by elevation models or by analysis of local weather data. On base of the aerial photos of the soil surface, water erosions are visible at a glance. Color and brightness of the earth allow the farmer to draw conclusions about the humus content, the irrigation condition or stone and weed content at the surface.

In the non-visible range, UAVs equipped with NIR cameras supply information about the leaf structure or the water content of the plants. Examining the reflected wavelengths of the plants, the data provide statements about the need for fertilizer, nutritional status and the population density of the plants. The farmer is able to act targeted and locally differentiated without having to extensively use fertilizer and polluting the environment.

There are countless examples of the use of UAVs for examination, monitoring and cartography of cropland. Other application scenarios include:

  • Monitoring and assessment of crop yield
  • Monitoring and testing the fertilizer requirements
  • Planning and mapping of water-drainages

Rescue wild animals with microdrones

According to German Wildlife Foundation more than 500,000 wild animals die a cruel death in Germany in the mowing season. Fawns and other young animals search for protection in the tall grasses. There they fall victim to the faster and more efficient working mowing machines. Even for experienced hunters the well-camouflaged animals are barely visible. Besides the animal welfare, the death of wildlife is causing major problems because the cadaver contaminate the mowed grass that is much needed for feedstuff. 

Wilf life rescue with microdrones.
Drones help farmers to avoid the death of wild life on the fields.

The lifesaver comes from the air: Since 2010, the Bavarian Hunting Association develops the Flying Wild Savior in cooperation with the German Centre for Aerospace. Using UAVs, the young animals are tracked and can be saved from death. Thermal imaging and infrared cameras replace the human eye and provide a detailed overview of the happening on the field. This example shows how microdrones can easily save the lives of thousands of fawns and also prevent economic damage to the farmer.


Conclusion and outlook

The report shows that the flying agricultural workers are no longer part of a future scenario. They are a part of the current agricultural revolution in precision agriculture. The specific applications of UAVs in farming show that a successful and environmentally friendly implementation in the agricultural business is already possible and will continue to be of great importance. Some obstacles still need to overcome, such as the legal position of commercial use of UAVs and the extension of the previously limited to VFR. microdrones is determined to overcome these obstacles.

The agricultural sector is one of the biggest growing markets, especially with the background of a growing world population and threatening famine. A huge market that goes through a major change. microdrones will be an integral part of this revolution: In the future, the deployment of UAVs will support the improvement of the yield, save the world’s cropland from a nutrition loss and even will save lives!