DRONES IN AGRICULTURE AND AGRITECH

One of the most frequently asked questions in agritech sector is linked to the fear that, in the future, human beings will be replaced by drones in the fields. Indeed, the new fruit harvesting machines are certainly the most useful and revolutionary in the sector. Not only tractors and drones, but also a new generation of machines can perform tasks that have so far been carried out only by the arms of farmers.

The agritech market is worth $ 5.5 billion and the super sophisticated machineries, specialized in harvesting, use infrared sensors to capture the colour of the fruits and artificial intelligence systems to evaluate their ripeness.

At this point the mechanical arms intervene, collecting them and dropping them into specific containers. These advanced machines can manage up to eight hectares of cultivated land in a very short time, an amount of surface unthinkable for a human being. Let’s see together in detail how technology changes agriculture with drones and how drones can be used in precision agriculture.

DRONES AND PRECISION FARMING

The use of drones in agriculture is increasingly widespread and ranges from crop monitoring to the administration of crop protection products. These machines, also called unmanned aerial vehicle, will become indispensable for farmers, also thanks to the lower costs and ease of piloting. But, unmanned aircraft with enormous potential must still be made the most. As regards the crop monitoring, the Trentino-based company Metacortex uses the unmanned aerial vehicle to estimate the growth index of apple trees leaves and thus assessing the risk of scab disease. In this way drones are able to suggest to the farmer possible interventions with antifungal products. It all started with the observation of an inaccurate leaf growth.

The drone, on the other hand, thanks to its camera independently takes photographs of the aerial part of the plants and through artificial intelligence algorithms it enables to estimate the leaf surface. The same technology can be applied to battle kiwi bacteriosis, through a thermal imaging camera and a multispectral sensor that understand the first signs of infection and allows farmers to intervene early avoiding contaminations of other plants.

The benefits of adopting drones in agriculture is mainly represented by the fact that through them it is possible to monitor large areas in a short time. By law, the drone is not yet free to fly without the supervision of a pilot, so the presence of an operator is always necessary.

Since 2018 the European Community has been working on an agriculture sector reform that should change the current situation. ENAC, the reference authority in Italy, could soon allow even subjects not in possession of a pilot license to drive drones.

The applications of drones in agriculture do not yet concern the phytosanitary sector, although their use would help, especially in hilly areas where winemakers have difficulty in administrating treatments. The drone could spray the screws not far from them, thanks to the pressure on the air exerted by the propellers.

Treatments could be more effective and productions more sustainable. By law, however, phytosanitary products cannot be freely applied through aircraft, nor is it possible to perform efficacy tests without authorizations. Some companies producing phytosanitary products found a good solution to use nontoxic mixtures that have the same physical characteristics as the phytosanitary products. The formulations created must certainly be able to ensure maximum leaf wetness and persistence, using both drones and the traditional atomizer.

Coldiretti Treviso launched a training plan for wineries that includes 5 courses in the two-year period 2019-2020, to train 60 new drone pilots specialized in DroneAmbiente. Drones represent the sustainability of precision agriculture, by new analysis tools that allow the winemaker to intervene if necessary.

The aim of the course is to provide a broad and complete overview of precision agriculture, the sensors and control software used, in particular the satellite guidance systems, remote sensors and variable rate technologies based on sensors and maps. In addition, the pilots will be trained on principles of physics for remote sensing, digital image components, digital image processing for the interpretation of the territory and much more.

BENEFITS OF USING DRONES IN AGRICULTURE

Among the many applications of drones, not all have the credentials to change, in a radical way, our daily lives and revolutionise the production sector. Here are the advantages for agriculture, where these sophisticated machines and sensors help manage crops and reduce costs:

  • Extreme weather conditions can cause extensive damage to a crop. Thanks to a brief overview made by the drone on the state of the crops, it will be possible to promptly communicate any changes to the insurant agents;
  • To remedy incorrect drainage, after the rain a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera can discover the areas of the soil where the water stagnates compromising cultivation;
  • For very large lands, the sowing period is very expensive, but a drone can browse many hectares of land in a short time, checking for the presence of the first shoots in the fields;
  • Some drones are able to monitor workers in the fields and remedy any shortcomings, before creating crop problems;
  • Drones are perfect for scouting and to browse cultivated fields, due to their privileged observation point of view that enables to understand the actual state of health of a crop or the possible presence of problems;
  • In New Zalanda there is a shepherd drone able of discovering the movements of the herd under its control and of sending them acoustic signals.

In the sector of agrifood 4.0 sustainability and precision viticulture, the TerraSharp agronomic consultancy offers data driven decision support solutions and services, which use advanced technologies for the acquisition of information on the health status of vineyards. These are targeted optimization interventions that analyse the data collected by drones and process them thanks to image analysis, image recognition and machine learning algorithms. The method used is called Complit and consists in collection and processing of data and information regarding different aspects of the crops:

  • Initial evaluation, with sample analysis of crops and soil characteristics to identify problems and correctly analyse the results;
  • Plant count, which allows to highlight those missing or close to death to intervene with reinforcement measures;
  • Maps of vigour, with subdivision of similar plants into sub-areas to predict variable rate fertilization and limit losses or surpluses;
  • Optimization of water resources, for maintenance and rebalancing where irrigation problems are present.

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HT Apps is engaged at the forefront in the development of digital solutions to improve the traceability processes of agrifood products and in the use of the latest innovations in sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) for agrifood, a leading sector of Made in Italy.

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