Humans have been cultivating land to produce crops and rear animals for around 12,500 years. Since then, we have been continually improving and refining the processes we use, from the stone tools of the Neolithic Revolution to the machines of the modern day.
The next great leap in agricultural techniques could stem from the use of drones to improve the precision agriculture approach.
In a recent review, PwC estimated the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture could be as much as US$32.4 billion. Recent breakthroughs in areas such as satellite imaging, remote sensing and meteorology, combined with the advances in drone technology, mean we could be on the cusp of the next great agricultural revolution.
Vineyards in Germany. Image: Taxiarchos228@Wikimedia Commons
In some cases, drones make use of available technology, but in a much more targeted way. In others, their flexibility means innovative approaches are possible. PwC identified key areas across the agricultural cycle where drones could make a substantive difference in farming.
Soil and field analysis
Drones could improve soil nutrient mapping. Image: Brian Boucheron
Early soil analysis informs seed planting patterns, irrigation techniques, and fertiliser use. Nutrient mapping has been a crucial component of precision agriculture since the introduction of GPS in the mid-1990s, and drones will take that further, with more detailed maps available.
Drone systems could vastly improve on the productivity of current farming methods. Image: Pixabay
Some startups have created drone-planting systems that they believe could achieve an uptake rate of 75%, by shooting pods containing both the seeds and necessary nutrients into the ground, as well as decreasing planting costs by 85%.
Aerial spraying by drones could be five times faster than current machinery. Crucially, drones’ ability to assess topography would mean equal coverage. Continued assessment by the drones could reveal production inefficiencies in specific areas, leading to faster and more targeted crop management.
Wheat aphid cluster. Image: Texas A&M AgriLife
Crop failure can lead to huge losses if not identified and responded to rapidly. Drones can carry devices that produce multispectral images, using both visible and near-infrared light to assess changes in the health of crops.
The Lake District – the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock is based in the Yorkshire countryside. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In 2015, the UK government announced £68m in three new Centres for Agricultural Innovation as part of its Agri-Tech Strategy to make the UK a world leader in agricultural technologies.
Ministers at the time believed an agri-tech revolution was needed to meet global food and energy challenges and the UK would be ideally placed to lead the way, with its research centres, established agricultural sector, and global influence. The current government is clearly of the same mind, with ‘transforming food production’ a key area of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
The UK is not alone. Both China and Israel’s state aerospace companies are developing technologies for use in this area, as well as Japan’s Yamaha, the USA’s Lockheed Martin, Canada’s Aeryon, and Sweden’s CybAero.
PwC’s advanced analytics: Drones. Video: PwCCanada
But the next agricultural revolution isn’t quite here yet. As with any new technology, there are ongoing concerns about the use of drones in the private industry, but the main issue in the agricultural sector is about the technology: whether both drones and the equipment they would need to carry is sophisticated enough to deliver.
While other industries interested in using drones might be focusing on privacy and insurance issues, the agri-tech sector is pushing for further technological improvements, such as better quality sensors and cameras, as well as even more highly automated drones.
Precision agriculture has a way to go before it becomes the norm in farming. Image: Cesar Harada@Flickr
However, the funding commitments from states and private companies around the world, in addition to the speed of developments in recent years, suggests that drones could play a major role in the next stage of agricultural development. The tools of the future will likely be a far cry from the stone sickles of our ancestors.