Farmers have long sought to get better information about how their crops are faring at a given point in time. The best choice for many farmers is to get into the fields and personally look at the crop themselves. However, such an approach is very time-consuming and may be infeasible for large operations with farms spread across multiple counties or even states. Instead, farmers have come to rely on images of their cropland taken from craft flying over the top of the land that allow them to detect potential problem areas, such as crop disease or pest outbreaks or a flooded, eroded, or hail-damaged fields. Large cattle operations can also use such technology to evaluate forage quality or discover damaged fencing across wide expanses of pasture or rangeland.  As available technology has become more sophisticated over time, so has the timeliness and level of detail of the information provided to farmers through such means.

The first aerial photographs were taken from hot air balloons in the middle of the 19th century, and the oldest surviving photograph from that era showed the expanse of downtown Boston, Massachusetts in 1860. The first aerial photographs taken from an airplane occurred in 1909, only six years after the Wright Brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, NC. This technology’s use in agriculture dates back to the 1930’s, when land managers used this resource to evaluate potential purchases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also used such images for several decades to help it estimate the acreage planted to specific crops across the country. Commercial photography firms started offering such services to individual farmers in the 1960’s, with photos being used to evaluate variations in vegetative growth across farms and even fields.  Most farmers who used such services could afford to do so only a few times per year.

The next technological advance was the advent of man-made satellites circling the Earth, the first one launched in 1957. The Landsat satellites, first launched by NASA in 1972, were designed to observe and record remote images of the Earth’s surface. For the first few decades, these satellites did not provide good enough resolution to be useful for agricultural purposes, especially at the individual farm level—initially, resolution could be no more precise than 33 feet. This limitation was imposed on U.S.-based satellites by the U.S. government for national security reasons--the fear was that accurate information from such images might assist foreign powers in identifying potential military targets in this country. The restrictions were lifted in the late 1990’s to allow U.S. commercial satellite firms to better compete in an international market.  

Today, farmers can operate GPS receivers on their combines which receive satellite images that allow them to pinpoint their location geospatially within one meter.  Use of different light spectra in those images, such as near infrared and microwave, can help farmers not only determine where their crops are having problems but also help them diagnose why it is occurring.  Combined with the ability to deliver precise amounts of fertilizer or herbicide to a given spot in a large field based on such a diagnosis, it can help farmers maximize yield and optimize use of inputs.  Hence, the phrase ‘precision farming’ was coined to describe this new use of technology.  Data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) showed that in 2010, some form of precision agriculture was used on 72 percent of all U.S. corn acres.   In most instances, this involved use of a yield monitor.

The final leap in technology is access to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or drones by individual farmers. The Israeli military first used drones as decoys to draw anti-aircraft fire in its 1982 conflict in Lebanon. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency first fired a missile from a drone in 2002 in Afghanistan.  The U.S. Congress passed a law allowing civilian use of drones in 2012, and the Federal Aviation Administration recently finalized regulations to clarify how such uses can fit in safely with existing use of airspace by airplanes and helicopters around the country.  The new rules take effect in August 2016.

The new rules will limit how much farmers can use drones, because they require that the operator retain line of sight with the vehicle, the drone’s weight cannot exceed 55 pounds and cannot fly above 400 feet.  Row crop farmers can use them to help with scouting their crops, but the size restrictions make crop dusting from drones infeasible for large fields.  The restrictions may make them more suitable for crop dusting of specialty crops, which are more valuable per acre but tend to be planted in smaller fields.  The advantages for farmers using drones as opposed to other forms of aerial surveillance are that they provide information on a real-time basis and are relatively inexpensive--current prices range from several hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.