Grow: Expanding our ability to provide, through technology

Flying for the Farm

Drones collect data that, once analyzed in the cloud, takes the guesswork out of farming—and some of the footwork, too.

Of the 18 fields that make up her 2,300-acre organic farm in Colorado, one has always caused headaches for third-generation farmer Amanda McGee. Rather, it always had. That finally changed in 2016, when McGee began flying a drone over the farm several days a week.

Outfitted with near-infrared cameras and a specialized flight program, the drone collects valuable data on crop health and creates aerial infrared maps. That data is immediately crunched in the cloud to map out which areas are thriving and which might require immediate triage—a job that previously had to be done painstakingly, acre by acre, on foot.

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Armed with this data, McGee changed her irrigation approach. Almost immediately, production per acre on the troubled field increased by nearly 60 percent. For her farm as a whole, it’s up 20 percent.

McGee is one of thousands of farmers across the U.S. and the world who have begun using drones to turn factory-scale farming into a business of precision. The drones generate weekly intelligence reports that identify problems with pests, disease, weather damage, or water shortages that could otherwise take months to collect. That allows farmers to intervene early enough to save crops, boost yields, and use irrigation and fertilizer more efficiently.

Incorporating drones and cloud analytics into the farming process not only leads to more profit—it can help to solve a global problem. As the world population grows, so does our need to feed it. By 2050, at least 9.8 billion people will populate Earth. The United Nations reports that feeding all of those people will require 50 percent more food than we produce today, as measured by calories. A lot of that increased production could be achieved just by farming current agricultural lands in a smarter way. Today crop failure is a regular occurrence on most farms, which means a lot of agricultural production goes to waste. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the world’s water supply goes to agriculture, and most of this water use is grossly inefficient. Drones can help to increase farm yields with less labor, less water, and less waste.

McGee uses a DJI Phantom consumer drone that Agribotix converted for professional farming use. Due to limited battery life, the drone covers a maximum of about 150 to 200 acres per flight, so McGee schedules two flights every three days to monitor field health over the entire span of the farm. Every Friday she visits specific spots by foot with an agronomist for a process called ground-truthing, to get a more detailed look and make any necessary changes to the upcoming week’s field-management plan.

The drone helps her understand the uncertainty that comes with seasonal weather changes such as rain, snow, freeze, hail, and wind. Freeze, hail, and wind can cause irreversible crop damage. But sometimes taking drone imagery after a weather event can identify whether a crop has survived and can be coaxed back to health with a little extra care. Rain and snow also affect the irrigation schedule, and the drone takes the guesswork out of this process.

For McGee, the drone has made indulging her lifelong passion for farming a lot less of a hassle and a much greater joy. Farming is in her blood. “I remember hearing my parents and grandparents talk about fields and crops like they were ‘people,’” she said. When you spend all waking hours with these ‘people,’ you want to know them well—and the drone makes the process that much easier.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of GROW, our discussion on how technology is impacting the ways we cultivate, prepare, and deliver food at home and beyond.