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An agricultural drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle applied to farming in order to help increase crop production and monitor crop growth. Sensors and digital imaging capabilities can give farmers a richer picture of their fields. This information may prove useful in improving crop yields and farm efficiency.
Agricultural drones let farmers see their fields from the sky. This bird's-eye view can reveal many issues such as irrigation problems, soil variation, and pest and fungal infestations. Multispectral images show a near-infrared view as well as a visual spectrum view. The combination shows the farmer the differences between healthy and unhealthy plants, a difference not always clearly visible to the naked eye. Thus, these views can assist in assessing crop growth and production.
Additionally, the drone can survey the crops for the farmer periodically to their liking. Weekly, daily, or even hourly, pictures can show the changes in the crops over time, thus showing possible "trouble spots". Having identified these trouble spots, the farmer can attempt to improve crop management and production.
As drones entered use in agriculture, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) encouraged farmers to use this new technology to monitor their fields. However, with the unexpected boom of agricultural drones, the FAA quickly retracted such encouragement, pending new rules and regulations. With incidents such as drones crashing into crop dusters, it was vital for the FAA and the AFBF (American Farm Bureau Federation) to agree on regulations that would allow the beneficial use of such drones in a safe and efficient manner. Although the American Farm Bureau Federation would like small adjustments to some of the restrictions that have been implemented, they are happy that the agricultural industry can actually use this new machinery without the worry of facing any legal issues.
Other companies might start flying their drones in unregulated areas to survey their competition and get to know the condition of crops and agricultural yield. Such a scenario could lead to compromising vital company secrets. People want to know that they are safe and protected, so the burden doesn't just fall on the farmer, but on many of those around the farmer, too.
The use of agricultural drones has ethical and social implications. One benefit is that they are able to monitor and control the use of pesticides properly. This allows minimizing the environmental impact of pesticides. However, drones don't need access authority to flying overs someone's property at under 400 feet (130 m) altitude. They may have microphones and cameras attached, and the resulting concern for potential privacy violation has caused some opposition towards drones.
There is a lot of room for growth with agricultural drones. With technology constantly improving, imaging of the crops will need to improve as well. With the data that drones record from the crops the farmers are able to analyze their crops and make educated decisions on how to proceed given the accurate crop information. Software programs for analyzing and correcting crop production have the potential to grow in this market. Farmers will fly a drone over their crops, accurately identify an issue in a specific area, and take the necessary actions to correct the problem. This gives the farmer time to focus on the big picture of production instead of spending time surveying their crops. Additional uses include keeping track of livestock, surveying fences, and monitoring for plant pathogens.