AI-powered drones for precision agriculture : The secret to scaling and sustenance

" According to a study, the global drone market within agriculture would grow at 35.9% CAGR (2020-25) to reach $5.7 billion by 2025. "

  • By Ankit Mehta | October 13, 2020

India is one of those rare countries with dual identities. We have steamrolled in terms of advanced tech while preserving our deep-rooted agrarian strengths. However, we still need to bridge a sense of disparity between our tech achievements and its application in agriculture. We need to bring in Agriculture 4.0 to push it in-step with Industry 4.0.
India is the 7th largest country in the world with the 2nd highest population. The varied topographical extent of our country, covering coastal areas, plateaus, hills, marshy lands, etc. make for a multitude of harvest timelines and crop varieties. These harvest timelines have seeped into our culture, festivals and collective identities.
Such complexities and localizations make Indian agriculture all the more dynamic and adaptive. However, this adaptability often takes a toll on its purveyors, the farmers. This is where advanced tech like AI-powered drones and multispectral analysis comes in. These drones would ease the tough economic and weather trials for the farmer helping them to adapt (quickly) to the demands of the land.
Challenges with planning and harvest in agriculture:
Farmers must plan their harvest right from the soil/land analysis, fertilization, seeding patterns, irrigation, infestation prevention, ripeness tracking, and final picking. Improper planning not just shrinks the farmer’s profit margins but also disrupts their livelihoods.
In order to create and execute this plan, the farmers must properly survey and map their land. However, they are restricted by the limited reach and effectiveness of manual surveying and surveillance. These restrictions give rise to planning and projection errors, which turn into future losses.
Drone impact on precision agriculture:
Drone-backed surveying, mapping and surveillance tech is ‘ripe’ for application to fill this gap. These drones can improve surveying quality and speed multi-fold. Drone-backed surveying/surveillance is up to 3x faster as compared to boots-on-ground. The farmers would finally have the tech support they, so rightfully, deserve. It will improve the overall yield for the farmer and improve the collective production across the country.
Let’s look at the three-phases where Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered drones have the most impact.
1. Soil analysis and field planning
2. Standing crop (growth) tracking and counting
3. Ripeness tracking and timing the harvest (picking)
How AI-powered drones boost soil analysis:
Every farmer should have a detailed analysis of their soil structure and land at their fingertips. Without this, the farmers unnecessarily increase their risk profile. Before drones, farmers depended on localized knowledge or government-backed soil sampling to understand the vitality of their land. This ‘knowledge’ wasn’t properly documented or digitized for mass replication and use.
Drones step-in to solve this analytics gap. The drones can carry high-resolution visual and thermal payloads. ideaForge drones can even carry both visual and thermal imaging equipment (dual payloads) at the same time. This means that they can conduct deeper and wider surveys every time they take flight.
The drones’ thermal and multispectral imaging helps create an Optimized Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index (OSAVI). The drones also help create a 3D elevation and contour model of the land to better understand the slope and terrain.
The 3D models clubbed with the OSAVI helps map a fertility chart of the entire field. The farmer now knows exactly which section of the field is most fertile. The index and 3D modelling also give the exact nitrogen levels. This helps the farmers to adjust their fertilizers as per the soil make-up.
Drones help infuse ‘Artificial intelligence’ within the field and soil preparation phase of agriculture.
Impact of AI-Drones on seeding and crop growth:
The farmers can leverage drone-enabled intelligence to experiment with different seeds-fertilizer combinations. They can plant one variation in one section while planting another variation in a different section. This helps with scientific benchmarking and historical referencing (not just for the farmers, but also for the local community as a whole).
The drone-led surveying also helps with figuring out the slope and direct sunlight determinants for effective seeding. The slope and contour mapping help in irrigation and harvest planning. India utilizes around 89% of the total extracted groundwater for irrigation. Drone-based planning would help save thousands of gallons of this water in each harvest cycle.
Once the seeding is done, these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)/drones can fast track and streamline aerial surveillance of the crops. The UAVs, with multispectral and Near Infrared (NIR) analysis, can help create Normalized Distribution Vegetation Index (NDVI) or Weighted Distribution Vegetation Index (WDVI). This, in turn, helps with chlorophyll and health tracking (crops).
The farmers, with drones, can easily spot any infected plant or batch in quick time. They don’t have to spray the entire zone but just the plants in need. This cuts down overuse of pesticides. Furthermore, the regular vitality tracking of the standing crop (with multispectral imaging) pushes the farmer to pay attention to special sections of the field.
One of the primary impact points for drones, the real-time day and night surveillance, improves the reaction time to cases of animal/insect infiltration or theft. All this live surveillance and feedback compliments the ‘dynamism’ and ‘adaptability’ of Indian agriculture while putting the farmers at ease.
Timing the harvesting and replanting perfectly with drones:
The timing of the harvest is critical. It must align with the ripeness of the crop, the availability of resources (labour, storage, etc.) and the feasibility of the logistics (shipping the yield). The farmers can leverage these AI-powered drones to perfect this timing.
The multispectral imaging gives the farmer the exact development timeline of each plant. The drones give such deep analytics like ‘the first zone of the field would be ripe on Monday of the first week of next month, and the adjacent batch would ripen the next week’. Farmers can align their efforts to get the maximum yield with the best quality.
Each harvest cycle reduces the nutrient value of the underlying soil. Drone-enabled imaging can help plan the revitalization of this soil and further replanting. The farmer can, ideally, structure an ‘assembly line’ where the resources are employed in either seeding, sustaining or harvesting across the season.
This means that when one batch is being harvested from one area, another is being laid in another area (at the same time). This would enable economies of scale and improve the profit margins for the farmers.
Envisioning a bright future for AI-driven agriculture:
This is an exciting time for small/micro drones and artificial intelligence. The tech and concepts behind both have transcended from fiction into cost-effective ground-reality. According to a study, the (global) drone market within agriculture would grow at 35.9% CAGR (2020-25) to reach $5.7 billion by 2025. AI-powered drones will infuse the necessary growth and returns within agriculture, as a sector.
At the end of the day, these farmers are hard-working entrepreneurs. It won’t be long before, backed by tech, farming becomes an equally viable alternative (as opposed to traditional start-ups) for our emerging minds. It would be then and only then, that we would replace India’s glory to the yesteryears’ ‘Golden Bird’ status.

Authored by Ankit Mehta, Co-founder & CEO, ideaForge Technology


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