Will Drones Make Farming More Sustainable?

published Mar 12, 2018
2 min read

Farmers are perpetually looking for ways to increase the sustainability of their work, especially as people become increasingly concerned with matters like climate change and food scarcity. For numerous reasons, individuals in the agricultural sector think drones could aid sustainability efforts — and in some cases, are already doing so.

Depending on Drones to Monitor Fields

A branch of Australia’s federal government teamed up with Ruralco, the largest rural services and advisory company in the country to gauge the impact of drones on agricultural productivity. Although there have been efforts to use drones for hobbyists in the farming sector, experts say those aren’t sufficient to promote the most realistic uses.

However, experts believe the innovation offered by drones could help farmers stay ahead of the curve when assessing productivity and sustainability issues that could affect large portions of land or indicate areas of crop stress. Because drones gather data as they move, they could give farmers insights about whether to use more or less pesticide on a section of land, which could, in turn, have an impact on sustainability.

Also, drones have positive effects on efficiency, especially for farmers managing sizeable fields. It takes time to travel across the fields through conventional methods, not to mention checking for specifics that drones could potentially spot much faster than humans.

Supporting Aquaculture With Drones

Statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization indicate there will be two billion more humans on the Earth by 2050, necessitating a 60 percent increase in food production. People who understand farming are confident aquaculture could get society closer to that goal. It involves large-scale fish farming and keeping the swimming creatures inside enclosures that are either indoors or in offshore locations surrounded by nets to keep predators out.

Before drone use was an established practice in aquaculture, divers had to go and inspect the nets for holes and check the overall health of the fish. However, the presence of humans often caused stress to the animals and was dangerous for divers. Drones are less invasive, safer options, and many come with handheld controllers that allow an operator on land to direct an unmanned vehicle’s path.

Using Drones for Crop-Growing Purposes

Many of the non-drone related eco-friendly advancements in agriculture are related to another kind of vehicle — the tractor. One of the recently unveiled options runs on biomethane, a type of fuel farmers can produce at in-house facilities using specially grown crops or food waste fed into a biodigester.

Although that tractor is a human-driven one, it responds to voice commands. There are also autonomous tractors that don’t need people to power them. Going back to drones, a recent achievement associated with scientists in the United Kingdom showed how it’s possible to use a drone and an autonomous tractor together to plant crops.

The project was called Hands-Free Hectare due to the goal of growing barley without requiring people to step onto that section of land. The researchers clarified that they used drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras that indicated where crop growth was strongest and weakest. Also, the drones could collect samples of the barley during different phases of the growing process, allowing scientists to investigate things without walking on the fields and disturbing them.

Researchers acknowledge that this high-tech way of farming has not yet made it to the mainstream. However, they think that their successful experiment could stimulate more interest in the agricultural techniques of the future.

These are some of the many reasons why farmers are getting interested in using drones for agricultural purposes or becoming early adopters and paving the way to show people what these flying vehicles can do. As the technology improves and specialists test different ways to harness the power of drones, expect them to become even more prominent for farming and efforts to focus on sustainability.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability freelance writer and blogger from Lancaster, PA. Check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for the latest updates.