The drone and satellite could become as important as the tractor to farmers
One of the smartest things humans did was plant something they knew could be harvested later. That investment in the future is arguably the most strategic thing we have ever done and it has formed the basis for most of human development.
The agricultural revolution enabled all the others and, while it was a very long time ago, you would be wrong to think not much has changed down on the farm.
The key improvements have been scaling the farming operation, then working to maximise yields. Those efforts, using mostly the same arable and tilled land, support a world population that has grown from 1 billion in the 1800s to 7 billion and is expected to only stabilise at approximately 9 billion.
To sustain that, farmers needed to improve on methods, tools, seed stocks, harvest techniques, fertilising, pest control and distribution.
The efforts lead to huge machines and massive watering and fertilising schemes. Pests are controlled by using aircraft to dump millions of litres of chemicals on fields.
That has proved to be too costly; both to the environment and the bottom line. The solution is not to add scale, but precision and has led to the advent of precision farming.
In order to maximise all of the yield elements, and minimise the costs, a farmer needs to determine what is and isn’t working. That means data - lots of it. Soil samples, weather patterns, water run-offs, potential pests and animals that may affect the crop.
The first innovation was to add improved weather data modeling that would allow for more precise watering. Soil modeling would allow profiles to become optimised and uniform.
The next used aerial and satellite imagery to better plan field layouts and access; ensuring the best planting and harvesting runs in the smallest space.
Next came precision planting with machines giving both the optimum planting spacing, but also delivering additional nutrients to parts of a field that needed it. Each season would see just the needed amount of supplement for a given area; not the entire field.
Adding routine drone surveys monitors the crop health, the low flights and modern cameras allow for incredible resolution allowing for pest infestations to be spotted just as they are starting and to identify even small areas that need more fertiliser.
Drones don’t only do the surveying, but can now also do the crop spraying. Once a field has been plotted, the drone will automatically fly the full field. When it needs to refill the spray tanks it automatically returns to where it stopped to continue.
Most solutions are currently focused on dense field crops like maize and wheat, but companies are working to build models for tree crops too. A South African company, Aerobotics, hopes to not only manage the tree health in an orchard but even the yield and health of an individual tree. Tracking the yield and even the grade of the eventual crop will help with future planning, ensuring every season can match the one before.
It's encouraging to see there are other local companies, such as Drone Clouds, looking to address the significant task of giving farmers access to these services.
While costs are still high for the average farmer, large scale commercial operations will help reduce the prices as the systems become more widespread and offset their costs with savings and profits.
In time even small scale farming can be managed with the precision and yield of a commercial farm which may be an even greater innovation, allowing for cities to once again incorporate agricultural areas within city limits. It may also reduce the distances some crops need to travel to markets and spread the risk for a single crop failure due to drought or pests.
It will lead to smarter irrigation for homes too, maximisation of garden space for both aesthetic appeal and food production.
It took an ability to invest in the future and work with nature to kick off that first agricultural revolution and it is what will be needed to ensure we manage the next one.
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