In the report, The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that integrating drones into U.S. airspace could, by the year 2025, create 100,000 new jobs for the U.S. economy. Most of those jobs, they estimate, will be in the agricultural market.
Farming is big business in the U.S. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2012 Census of Agriculture preliminary report, there are 2.1 million farms in the U.S., consuming 915 million acres of land; about 40 percent of the U.S. is farmland. According to reports from the EPA and the USDA NASS, the U.S. produces:
- Thirty-two percent of the world's corn crop
- Thirty percent of all cotton grown worldwide
- Over fifty percent of the world’s soybeans
- About ten percent of the world’s wheat
- Over seventy percent of all sorghum grown
Although U.S. farms are mechanized and extremely productive, they still rely heavily on an age-old practice known as “crop scouting.” In its basic form, crop scouting, or field scouting, is simply observing conditions by traveling around and through a field. This is done so farmers can see how well crops are growing and, when necessary, take corrective action to prevent or mitigate crop damage. The process begins by observing fields before seeding. At this point, farmers are looking for weeds that might impact the growth of crops once their fields have been planted. After planting, ongoing scouting can reveal damage from moisture issues, pest infestations and the effect of fertilizers and pesticide applications.
Scouting is critical to farming because it improves crop yield. It’s also the single most compelling reason that drones will transform the agricultural industry. Viewing crops at 200 feet from a drone has many advantages over walking a field with a note pad. Not only can UAVs provide a comprehensive picture of field conditions, but crop development can also be documented with images and videos from an onboard camera and compared over time.
UAV technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Longer battery life, object avoidance capabilities, more efficient airframe design, better materials and lightweight, multispectral cameras all promise a bright future for the agricultural use of drones. Perhaps more importantly, UAV crop scouting is not a futuristic concept; UAVs are already available and, once approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, could be useable by today’s farmers.
Drones are also inexpensive to own and operate. In a 2007 demographics report, the EPA stated that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm. With many autonomously controlled, camera equipped UAVs now selling for less than $1000, the average farm would spend less than one percent of its annual budget to monitor and increase crop yield using a drone.
Although field scouting drones are inexpensive, game-changing tools, the technology does not stand alone; it’s also a gateway to ongoing application development that has the potential to continue to increase crop yield. Below are just some of these new applications.
ScoutDoc records field and crop observations, and weed, insect and disease activity.
Connected Farm uses phone GPS signals for mapping field boundaries, locating irrigation pivots, marking flags and entering scouting information for points, lines and polygon areas.
eCropScout enables farmers to save field scouting, insect and disease scouting, chemical applications, fertilizer and manure applications, planting data and harvesting data information.
ID Weeds, from the University of Missouri, helps users identify different types of weeds.
ScoutPro assists farmers in identifying weeds, insects and diseases associated with growing soy, corn and wheat.
Pioneer® Field360™ Notes locates, documents and maps satellite imagery from crop scouting.
AGRIplot™ creates maps and calculates areas of field polygons.
FarmLogs allows farmers to map various activities while in the field in a simple format.