80% of America's drones may soon be toiling for farms - and the environment

Maggie Monast

Seems drones are everywhere these days.

Amazon and Google are gearing up to deliver packages using drones. Pilots report near-misses with errant drones. A European soccer fan is fined for flying drones over games – and the list goes on, reminding us how small unmanned aircrafts are suddenly part of modern life.

But agriculture?

Indeed, the biggest demand for drones may now be coming from farmers who found a new way to monitor their crops. Today, 16 percent of agricultural retailers are already selling drones at their locations and the number of such outlets carrying the products is growing rapidly.

Industry groups estimate that 80 percent of drones will be headed straight to the fields in coming years if the Federal Aviation Administration approves the use of the gadgets for commercial purposes.

What’s more, drones can be a boon to the environment. Here are four ways farmers, drones and sustainable farming intersect.

1. Problems on fields spotted in record time

Drones can move faster than people, tractors and many cars. But they’re also able to fly to remote areas of a farmer’s field that are hard to get to.

So if a farmer wants to know if erosion is taking place along a stream at the edge of his fields, for example, a drone can provide that information so much faster than if he strapped on boots and hiked to the site.

2. Massive data collection boosts crop health

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The more data a farmer can gather about his field, the better the value for the environment.

Drone sensors can measure plant height by collecting information from the plant canopy and the soil. It can be an indicator of crop health and of when a farmer should water or harvest crops.

But these sensors also use near infrared wavelengths to create images that indicate sunlight exposure and crop health. When crops are healthy, there is less need for fertilizers and pesticides.

3. Drones monitor fertilizer runoff

Crops need fertilizers to thrive, but up to 50 percent of what’s applied is never absorbed by crops, leading to air and water pollution. It also affects a farmer’s pocket book; fertilizers account for about half of what farmers spend on their fields.

Drone sensors can create satellite imagery that indicates which fields need nitrogen or phosphorous, and which are doing just fine. This allows for more precise fertilizer application, with less being released into the environment where it can lead to problems such as algae blooms.

4. Water used more efficiently  

Drones with thermal cameras can detect which crops are too hot, and which are cooler. That way, irrigation can be aimed at dry, thirsty plants instead of an entire field.

The water savings potential is massive, especially in drought-stricken areas such as California, where every saved drop of water matters.

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