Is Precision Farming Possible without Drones?

Mehmet Emre YAZICI

Independent Consultant, Aerospace Industry

The concept of Precision Agriculture (or precision farming) has been around since the 1960s when the United States’ Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, introduced a system called “grid planting”. Grid planting is a planting pattern in which farms are divided into squares and plants are positioned in rows inside each square. This method allowed farmers to have more control over their land and to make the most out of their resources.[1]

Within the framework of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, specifically under Goal #2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture), it is aimed to double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers (farmers/ fishers) to ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

To achieve that goal, world needs to increase food production by almost 50 percent by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion, yet resources such as land and water are becoming more and more scarcer.[2]

This is why agriculture must look beyond grid planting and make use of emerging technologies while implementing precision farming practices.

Farmers are no alien to the use of leading-edge technology in farming. Agricultural aircraft have been in use for this purpose since the 1920s. Remote sensed data from satellites have been used increasingly for years to assess crop distribution, extent, and health from the sky.

Today, Precision Farming collects multiple sensor data, both in the air and on the ground, to improve farm productivity through mapping spatial variability in the field. Existing technology can collect very high-resolution imagery below the cloud level, with much more detail than the satellite imagery usually available. They bring in cost advantages against aircraft, especially in small areas. They also are easy to use. They are called: Drones!

At the most basic level, drones permit farmers to obtain a birds-eye-view of their crops, allowing them to detect subtle changes that cannot be readily identified by “crop scouts” at ground level. Multispectral and hyperspectral aerial imagery collected by drones help in creating Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps, which can differentiate soil from grass or forest, detect plants under stress, and differentiate between crops and crop stages. There are strong correlations between crop yield and NDVI data measured at certain crop stages. Hence tracking the crop growth at key stages help to provide an accurate estimate of the crop yield and also to address issues early.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps obtained from multi-specrtral imaging by a drone (left), A spraying drone in action (right).

After processing a wealth of data collected mostly by drones, a prescription is generated to perform precision variable rate aerial spraying over a field: either fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, or another regulation-approved liquid. This aerial spraying maximizes crop absorption compared to ground spraying and lessens the effect of ground absorption. Typical modern-day spraying drones have a tank capacity of over ten liters of liquid pesticide with a discharge rate of over a liter a minute, allowing them to cover a hectare (10,000 m2) in ten minutes.

Compared to conventional irrigation, drones can save water resources by up to 67%, increase fertilizer utilization rate by up to 40%, reduce growth period by up to 30% and, improve production volume 1.5-2 times. They also help reduce human resource expenses.

It is no coincidence that the Global Agriculture Drones Market, which was USD 2.15 Bn in size in 2021, is expected to reach USD 6.72 Bn by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 25.6%. The Software & Services segment of the market is expected to grow at the highest CAGR.[3]

So, the answer to the question in the heading of this article is a big NO! It is impossible to think of precision agriculture without drones. Drones are here to stay and develop as an integral part of precision agriculture practices to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.

However, the lack of standardization of communication interfaces and protocols together with rules & regulations over flying commercial drones in civilian spaces render it difficult to operate agricultural drones and restrain the growth of the global industry during the forecast period.[4]

Due to this particular fact, MaviKanatlar®, has been performing field trials for the past two years, to improve precision agriculture practices and include them in SeyirDefteri®, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool for farmers and service providers to efficiently perform both multi-spectral imaging and variable rate precision spraying applications in a safe and compliant way.


[4] E-agriculture in Action: Drones for Agriculture, Published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and International Telecommunication Union, Bangkok, 2018