'Drones Might Be the Future of Food'

Former Wired editor Chris Anderson on why data will revolutionize agriculture

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

When Chris Anderson started building drones, he had no idea what a crop survey was. He had never even been on a farm - at least, not "professionally." But about a year and half ago, he found out that farmers were getting excited about drones - and now, so is he.

"When I got into this, I thought it would be the future of flight, but now I think drones might be the future of food," he said at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific conference on Wednesday.

Anderson started getting into drones in 2007, when he created an open-source platform for sharing the technology's design. Now he's the CEO of 3-D Robotics, which manufactures electronics and aerial vehicles. He maintains that, contrary to popular belief, drones aren't good for domestic terrorism ("There are a lot of easier ways - FedEx, for example, is a good way of transporting small packages"), smuggling drugs ("Getting drugs across the border is not hard - the small kilograms you could carry are just not worth it"), or delivering tacos ("Not the proudest moment for journalism"). They will, however, transform the way we grow food. Here's a lightly edited version of what he said about the role of drones on farms:

This actually is a great tool for crop surveys. Drones are going to be one of the biggest sources of big data in one of the biggest industries in the world, which is agriculture. What they do is they take cameras and they put them over fields, and what that gives the farmer is information about water and chemicals and growth patterns. Once upon a time, farmers were able to walk their fields and know what was going on. Then big ag and the consolidation of agriculture created these massive farms. They don't know what's going on in the middle of the field.

You can now see fields through these infrared lenses, which shows the health of the plant, which gives them information that allows them to use water more efficiently and use fewer chemicals. We spray fungicides and pesticides prophylactically. Not because there's an infection, but because the cost of missing infection is the loss of crop. We've increased the chemicals in our environment and our food because we have a paucity of data.

This trend won't only affect American industrial agriculture, Anderson said. "It's absolutely global. Big ag has spread everywhere. This is a way to increase productivity without adding more people."

But it's important to keep in mind that the technology is still in its infancy - sort of like the early days of computing. "We haven't come up with the Macintosh for drones quite yet, but we're right on the verge," he said.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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