Unmanned aircraft vehicles: the key for precision agriculture?

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Unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) may be the next tool to improve precision agriculture. By September 2015, it is expected that the Federal Aviation Administration will have regulated the commercial use of UAVs. Despite their use by law enforcement, privacy concerns may limit UAV use in urban areas.

Because agriculture is based in rural areas and covers a large surface, many companies are pushing hard for the development of UAV applications that will change how farms are managed.

Precision agriculture is a farm management concept based on the high time frequency measurement of intra and interfield variability in crops. This allows farmers to make decisions about smaller surface units and within shorter periods of time.

The introduction of GPS and global navigation satellite system technologies, together with variable-rate machinery, allowed for the development of precision agriculture. UAVs will improve precision agriculture by collecting larger amounts of data in a shorter period of time. It will allow farmers to move from sampling a crop to measuring the entire population of plants.

Corn is one of many crops that will benefit from UAVs. The present sampling recommendation for corn is one plant per 1,000 plants in the field. This may cause an error on the estimate of the crop condition and may lead to producers making wrong decisions.

Today, nitrogen applications after crop emergence are based on the average of the sample within an area of a field. This means that too much nitrogen will be applied to half of the crop and too little to the other half. With the existing variable-rate applicators, it is possible to better adjust nitrogen levels, which will increase yields and reduce costs. Even more, it is possible to reduce fall and spring nitrogen applications by increasing the precision in an after- emergence application. This will reduce the total amount of nitrogen applied and nitrogen losses.

For my research, I am working to measure the economic impact of UAVs on agriculture and the implications on farm management. The existing variable-rate technology on seeding, spraying and fertilizer applications will allow UAV plant data collection to have an important effect on yields.

Nevertheless, the most interesting effects are related to the possibility of adjusting, with much more precision than before, fertilization requirements during the growing season. The reduction in nitrogen losses may be significant and may allow for the possibility of minimizing nitrogen runoff that may be regulated in the future. Even today, time restrictions create a strong incentive to fertilize before seeding, but new equipment will diminish that issue.

An example is the increasing speed of application with new equipment. Another example is the use of more unmanned machinery, such as tractors, that drastically may change the need for labor in the future and may intensify the competition among farmers for land.

Unmanned is a word that is becoming common in farming, and UAVs are going to become as routine in the fields as self-propelled sprayers.


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