Although drone technology has been in place since the 1980’s, over the last few years, the drone market has soared. (Pun intended.) As technology has improved, costs have decreased, and the available accessories and sensors have proliferated, making these unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs, an affordable and versatile tool in many industries, including legal hemp and cannabis. This cutting-edge technology is helping growers and farmers boost yields and minimize expenses.
When using GPS coordinates, drones can be programmed to scan hundreds of acres in minutes. Equipped with various sensors and cameras, there are many ways drones are being utilized in the field to increase productivity and crop quality. Often called precision farming, “smart farming” is the apex where technology and agriculture meet. Here are just a few ways drones are improving farming in cannabis and other crops.
|Near Infrared Technology|
Areas of crops may be affected by heat, stress, improper water, pests, and disease. No different than any other large field crop, monitoring the conditions of the entire field can be difficult. Using Near Infrared Technology, or NIR sensors, drones can provide growers with a bird’s eye view of the field and report back specific areas which may be in distress. The images are loaded into a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index to provide a detailed analysis map of the health of the crop, helping farmers identify the specific areas which may need extra water, nutrients or other attention.
Chemical sprays such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are an integral part of large-scale farming. However, with NIR and drone technology, the environmental and human impact can be significantly reduced. When problem areas are identified by the NIR scan, different drones equipped with tanks and sprayers can be sent out to spot treat just the areas that need it. This can reduce the amount of chemicals used, which is better for the farmer, for the consumer and for the environment.
Equipped with various sensors like GPS, lasers, and ultrasonic echoing devices, the drones can apply chemicals with pin-point accuracy. Plus, drones can do the work much faster, eliminating the need for manual labor in the field, and saving humans from chemical contact while spraying manually.
|Irrigation and Spot-Nutrients|
Farmers no longer need to irrigate entire fields or spread nutrients over healthy plants. Similar to chemical spraying, the NIR scan can help identify particular areas of the crop which may need water or other vital nutrients. Then, drones equipped with tanks can be sent to specific locations in the field to irrigate or feed just the areas of the crop which need it. Healthy crops stay healthy, while weak spots get the treatment they need.
One company, M3 Aerial Products, out of Canada, equips their drone with a 360-degree, 4D camera to provide images from within the field, even at the root level. A UAV pilot flies the drone over various locations in the field, which then lowers the 360-degree camera into the vegetation, recording the images of particular areas of stress identified by the data provided the NIR flight. This video shows how M3’s UAV solution can give valuable insight for the hemp farmer. Using virtual reality goggles, growers can “look around” problem areas without physically disturbing the crop.
Agricultural drone solutions are available in several packages ranging from around $3500 up to $12,000 or more. Drones have various flight times, and will generally be coupled with sophisticated software applications to program flight patterns, as well as, collect and analyze data. Sensefly, for example, offers their eBee SQ drone for just over $10,000. Their eMotion application provides flight planning, while a fully-integrated Sequoia multispectral sensor captures data across four non-visible bands, plus visible RGB imagery to provide aerial insights which help monitor the conditions of the crop from planting to harvest, allowing cultivators to identify problem areas early to make any necessary adjustments.
Where dangers exist for human workers, or there’s a need to go where a human can’t go, drones may be the worker bees cultivators need. Imagine sending a fleet of drones out to irrigate a hemp field like “GPS-guided sentinels” on a mission. Combined with the increasing market of agricultural sensors, drones can help farmers optimize their approach to tending to the fields of any kind of crop.