How Drones Will Help Us Grow Better Food and Wine, and More of It

There’s a pervasive myth of the American farmer: technologically conservative, isolated and set in his ways (always a him), and probably older and kind of grumpy and heavily flannelled, too. However, as Robert Blair, a wheat farmer in Idaho who’s pioneering the use of drones in agriculture, once told me, “People think we’re just standing around out there in our bib overalls holding a pitchfork. They really have no idea that agriculture is one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world.”

He’s right. Historically, even, because advancements in agricultural technology are what gave rise to civilization in the first place. And today, we’re going to have to call on the agriculture industry again to make more of those huge technological leaps in order to sustain that civilization.

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The experts say we’re going to have to double global food production by 2050. The reason is not that the population itself will double — though by 2050 we’ll have around two billion more mouths to feed — the reason is also what those two billion mouths will be feeding on. With economies surging in big developing countries like China, India and Brazil, people who formerly couldn’t afford much meat have developed a taste for it, and the animals that will provide all that meat have to be fed somehow. To give you an idea of how this breaks down, around 10% of the corn we grow in the U.S. today ends up in people’s bellies, while 40% ends up in the bellies of other animals.

Given the scale of this challenge, the obvious question is how. One approach is to take the “grow more” route. It’s worked in the past. However, the “more” approach, more pasture clearing and more land converted to farmland, has also had an enormous impact on the environment, as agriculture contributes significantly to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. And in a vicious circle, climate change in turn negatively impacts agriculture by diminishing crop yields.

Another route is the “grow more by growing better” route, or, in terms of the buzzword we’ve all seen in even Walmart grocery stores by now, the sustainable route. And this is where drones come in.

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Drones will contribute to a more sustainable world. They can collect the aerial data that farmers need to better understand and predict crop yield, assess crop health and weed cover, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to environmental sustainability, monitor and target water and fertilizer distribution and application. These farming techniques are popularly called precision agriculture, which can save farmers money and time, as well as help them enhance their crop quality, yields, and profits on those yields, and optimize the usage and output of farmland.

For instance, 3DR Mapping Platforms can automatically capture aerial images to create maps that help farmers scout their crops and monitor soil quality, crop stress and vigor. Crop consultants and agronomists can use those same images to identify and assess crop health, irrigation and yield patterns, and even predict crop yield in advance. They can accordingly target their distribution of fertilizer and water, which not only have a huge environmental impact but are also the two biggest cost inputs for farming. (Ironically, nitrogen fertilizer, which we use heavily to increase crop yield, also causes prairie grasslands to become a virtual monoculture of an otherwise extremely rare invasive agricultural weed.) If farmers want, our one cm/pixel resolution can even allow them to see clearly and accurately right down to each individual grape. And perhaps most obviously, they won’t need to spend so much time scouting their crops on foot, and can appropriate that time instead to production. Further, because drones are fully automated, farmers and agronomists can save flight paths in the mission planning software and fly identical missions at different times of year, or even from one year to the next, allowing them to overlay and compare data and development across time.

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The possibilities extend beyond what we can see. For instance, near-infrared (NIR) imagery is of particular interest to farmers. A healthy leaf reflects a lot of NIR, actually more NIR than visible green light. A stressed leaf reflects less NIR, and dead leaves less still. You can put a camera on a drone that gathers NIR aerial data, and then use those images to make a specific type of map (NDVI) that can give a highly detailed understanding of crop health that would be impossible to accrue with the human eye. Also, NIR data allow farmers to precisely quantify weed coverage, which is tough to accurately gauge with visible-range information. Drones can be outfitted with many different types of these cameras and sensors, and can also capture data in the IR and hyperspectral ranges.

Now to you and me, this might sound highly technical, and perhaps confusing and ultimately unimpressive. To the right person, however, this information is invaluable; it leads to concrete and critical action, and it gets better results. All we really need to know is that these data will help us grow better food and wine, and more of it.

Areas with the potential to increase crop yields.

But, to me at least, what’s even more interesting when it comes to the global food production problem is where most of the growth is going to take place. Crop yields are soon going to more or less max out in the developed world, with most of the potential for increasing yields in the developing world — Central America, Africa, and Eastern Europe especially. But farmers in those places can’t generally afford the types of agricultural drone systems we see on the market today, which routinely sell for $25,000 to $50,000. This is a perfect example of why 3DR has from the beginning been committed to innovation through price. Our all-in-one Mapping Platforms, each a package that includes a high-resolution camera and professional image processing software, will clock in at just above $5,000. We do this because we have a responsibility to put this technology in the hands of the most people who are the most capable of effecting change and who need it the most. Honest and revolutionary pricing is one way we can do that.

The way we see our role in this, our technology alone won’t double global food production or decrease our environmental footprint. We won’t change the world by ourselves, but through our platforms, we’ll empower the people who do.

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