The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the average farm in the United States is about 450 acres — which is a lot of ground to cover.
Help is hovering overhead as farmers across the country invest in low-cost drones to monitor their fields. Equipped with cameras, the drones allow farmers to detect trouble spots they may miss at ground level. Bald patches of earth or plants withering under the sun can indicate a pest infestation or an irrigation fail that could cost lots of money.
A number of companies are taking drone patrol even further. They’re outfitting the hovering crafts with Artificial Intelligence programs that not only detect problems, but analyze them as well. Drones can be programmed to detect a specific type of pest and determine how many are present, even on an individual plant. Or they can be programmed to spot leaks in irrigation pipes that aren’t immediately apparent through camera imagery.
Some new software programs can also predict crop yield, giving farmers the information they need to plan for harvest.
American Robotics is one of a number of companies going ‘next generation’ by developing agricultural drones that can spray pesticides in targeted areas, a more sustainable solution than spraying an entire field. Companies hope to create fleets of drones that automatically tend to farmland, returning to homebase to recharge then flying off again in formation, keeping a vigilant eye on the valuable real estate below.
Such scenarios might be pricey for many small farms. Agriculture drones in operation today can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000, depending on the quality of the camera and software. But for some robotic companies, it is worth investing in a future that could promote agricultural efficiency and more sustainable practices.