Flying robots for food security

Find out how drones can help meet today’s food challenges

10 Aug 2016

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of drones? Widely known originally for their use for military purposes, increasingly, researchers, aid organizations, governments and private companies are exploring the many ways drones can be used for good. Otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, these flying robots have started to transform various industries, including agriculture.

In the Zero Hunger podcast series, FAO explores what drone technology has to offer for agriculture.

Let us hop on a flight to three destinations to find out how drones support and improve food production.

1. Supporting governments and farmers

Agriculture drones can be equipped with photogrammetric equipment, a camera that collects very detailed, high-resolution aerial photos from different angles.

The data collected from drone flights makes it easier for governments to monitor how fields, coastlines and forest areas are doing and plan interventions and infrastructure projects that benefit local farmers.

For example, monitoring with drones can assist in identifying changes in forest cover, which are easily observable with high-resolution aerial images.  They can also be useful for monitoring forest fires, crops and land invasions, allowing for better management of natural resources.

With reliable information on new pests and diseases, for instance, or in areas with damaged land where crops are not growing properly, farmers can take better decisions on resource allocation and the protection of their livelihoods.

2. Helping to prepare for natural disasters

Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013 causing extensive damage to the agriculture and fisheries sectors. The total cost to agriculture was estimated at $700 million.

In a bid to stay ahead of the negative impacts of climate change, floods and typhoons on food security, the Government of the Philippines and FAO have started a pilot project using  UAVs to assess where farmlands are most at risk from natural disasters and to identify ways through which such risks can be countered. Safety methods include ground contouring, building retaining walls and planting protective vegetation, all of which can serve as safeguards against proceeding disasters.

Real-time information feed into early warning systems, farm-level advisories and local and national plans to allow the Government to make immediate plans for disaster risk reduction. Because UAVs can be flown in coastal and forest areas, they are also used for environmental monitoring.

The uses of UAVs have more advantages than conventional satellite imagery. UAVs can be deployed even under cloud cover. With a ground resolution of up to three centimetres, UAVs can also generate quick information for pre- and post-disaster assessments, even in remote areas.

Because UAVs can cover up to 200 hectares per 30-minute flight, they can significantly speed up the process of risk analysis, which traditionally takes several days or weeks.

3. Preventing and controlling pest outbreaks 

From the USA to Australia, drones are currently monitoring plants for pests and diseases. Its sensor devices can detect when a plant goes into stress, which could have one of the following reasons: either water or fertilizer shortage or pest attack. Impossible for the human eye to spot, drones are able to see when the plants’ photosynthetic activity decreases. Detecting a pest outbreak in advance can prevent substantial crop losses. A single infested crop can not only spread throughout the entire farm but also advance to neighboring ones.

Drones allow farmers to zoom out and get a bird’s eye view of an area of farmland that can help them assess the full scope of the situation on the ground. However, research is underway to equip drones with robotic capabilities to collect insect samples or set traps.

Understanding the limiting factors

At this point, depending on the equipment, drones for agricultural use can cost up to US$80 000. However, with a significant increase in demand and improvement in the UAV technology, the cost is expected to reduce in the coming years.

What happens to all the data? A drone flight covering a small area might generate 40-50 gigabytes worth of data, which needs adequate storage and qualified personnel for further analysis. Significant investment are needed in capacity development activities, including the design of flight plans, drone assembly, maneuvering and maintenance, field data collection, image processing and high-resolution mapping.

As the evolution of drones continues, application of their use in agricultural sectors is expected to grow. Listen to the full episode here.

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