Agriculture has seen tremendous changes over the last decades and we take the bet that this will evolve furthermore. The rise in use of drones for agricultural purposes is here, and we're seeing a real shift in country regulations to allow such uses.
Drones have several advantages for farming, as they allow to cover great distances with little resources. They are also versatile and can serve several purposes such as crop surveillance, spraying or even being a shepherd.
Agricultural drones are up for sale
Recent equipment introductions, and regulation changes in particular, look likely to see aerial applications by drones to increase substantially and quickly around the world. In fact, commercial equipment from big brands is already available in store for those tech savvy farmers. John Deer for example partnered with Volocopter to produce this 18-rotor drone capable to fly for half an hour with 180 kg loads.
In countries with advanced agriculture such as Australia or USA, aerial spraying by drone is a real competitive advantage. With big lands to cover, drones are a nice alternative to helicopters as able to work on a pre-programmed route. And this, can not only be achieved remotely, but also truly autonomously.
Massive benefits for farmers in countries with developing agriculture
Drone spray applications also provide massive benefits for farmers in countries with developing agriculture. Indeed, in countries like China and India, they have essentially enabled farmers to leap from hand-held applicators, skipping vehicle-mounted boomed machines, and going straight to drones. At the same time drones improve application timeliness, reduce the need for skilled labour and cut hand-held sprayer operators’ exposure to harmful pesticides.
China recently passed a bill to allow drones up to 5,7 tons to fly and spray at a maximum altitude of 15 m ! More info
Drones are playing a major role in the Chinese government’s aims to use advanced technology to modernise its agricultural production and help combat the overuse of chemicals in the country. A report by the FAO and World Bank shows the volume of pesticides it uses is three times more than the USA per hectare of land.
Elsewhere around the world the lack of regulations is slowing the wider deployment of spraying drones on farms. This is either due to rules not keeping up with technology or simple outright bans on all aerial applications – as in the whole of the EU. While many countries are catching up by including drone use in civil aviation law, the difficulty is compliance with spraying regulations. In many places chemical applications are tightly controlled and in most circumstances this will require changes to products’ registered use.
Map of the world where drone spraying is allowed (nor not)
Drone applications will also have to comply with local regulations. For example, in the Netherlands all applications can only be made with 75% drift reducing nozzles or technology. Currently, in countries with advanced agriculture, ground-based application equipment developments and product use restrictions are focused squarely on reducing drift and increasing accuracy.
Concerns about drift
There are questions about the quality, efficacy and safety of applications from drones and rising unease among researchers and experts in the more ‘traditional’ spraying community. It’s a concern shared by Tom Wolf, an independent spray expert from Canada, where pesticide applications from drones remains illegal. “My primary concern is around spray drift,” he explains. “Low drone payloads mean they are unable to carry much liquid, so by necessity they must use low application volumes to provide any sort of productivity.”
The only way to provide sufficient coverage with very low volumes is to use nozzles that produce finer droplets. “ASABE fine to very fine droplets will have problematic effects on off-target movement and evaporation. These fine droplets are also more prone to the aerodynamic eccentricities of aircraft,” he adds.
The question remains if drift can be managed properly, many could argue this is today's problem; we've taken this aerial shot in France about a year ago showing little control over drift, despite being close to habitations.
Research is ongoing
While research into drone spraying is progressing, most of this relates to coverage and deposition as well as spraying speeds and heights. The USDA is, however, currently conducting trials looking at drift. Wolf is part of a working group in Canada researching drone applications, including drift analysis. While drones employ the latest, highest technology for flying, control and autonomous operation, some of the application technology is quite basic, particularly compared with modern vehicle-based boom sprayers. Drone manufacturers are addressing these issues with more sophisticated technology, such as rotary atomising nozzles, electro-static systems and other developments.
It goes without much doubt that drones will become more efficient over time and provide a solid alternative for agriculture. Some concerns remain and need to be addressed before we see a normalisation of drones over our fields. Countries and administrations that will nail this technology first will see themselves ahead of the pack.
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Disclaimer: Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information researched, we take no responsibility for any loss, harm or damage caused as a direct or indirect consequence of relying on this information. It is your responsibility to seek advice from qualified local & relevant authorities for needed information about local drone regulations.