The Flying Ally
Twenty years ago, obtaining an aerial overview of crops for an affordable price was the dream of Brazilian farmers and researchers, today it is a reality! The drones – flying devices equipped with cameras, infrared lenses and sensors of the most varied types –are present throughout the country's fields and are already revolutionizing agriculture.
The idea of dividing the crop planted area into small pieces of land and observing it "from above" follows the modern concept of Precision Agriculture; which arrived in Brazil around 1990 and allowed farmers to increase productivity, extracting the maximum profitability of every piece of their property. In the past, the options for monitoring a sugar cane field, for example, were to enter the plantation or invest a lot of money to do a mapping with an airplane. However, today this is possible in a much easier and cost effective way: by acquiring a small drone – weights approx. 1 Kg – to obtain the aerial view. While the information obtained is similar, the main difference lies in the investment required: mapping with a conventional aircraft costs R$ 8 per hectare (around US$ 2.50 per hectare) with a drone it can be half of this value, which makes it more accessible to all growers – from the largest to the smallest.
Brazilian producers, especially those who are more enthusiastic about new technologies, are breaking paradigms in relation to the traditional techniques of agricultural production. They started to incorporate drones in the management of their business. This reflects a worldwide trend: 25% of drones' global sales revenue comes from agriculture (around US$ 32 billion), according to PWC consultancy.
In Brazil, the flying ally is transforming the whole process of cultivating and harvesting across the most different cultures, from grains to sugarcane. Its use ranges from the mapping of the crop, identifying pests and diseases, to the application of chemical and biological inputs. The technology can also be used to collect materials (soil sample or insects, for example). With so many benefits to the farmer, some researches already estimate that the use of drones can provide a 15% to 20% increase in productivity.
Although it is an affordable resource, which many producers in Brazil are purchasing directly, there are still some challenges to make the most out of its potential. One of the issues is its proper use. They are more fragile to handling than large harvesters and other agricultural machinery. If not properly operated, the equipment can fall and be destroyed. In addition, the operator needs to be sure that the machine is in optimal conditions for take-off and that the automatic operation mission has been programmed correctly. Rural associations and even manufacturer’s representatives are offering training in Brazil to field professionals who operate drones.
Yet another challenge involves the development of new techniques and software to process images and data that can generate recommendations automatically and facilitate the farmer's day-to-day operation. Imagine a drone that, in addition to mapping an area, will also be able to process answers, for example: identify where the weeds are, which type they are, and localize the application of agrochemicals. It is in this direction that researchers in Brazil are moving. In the near future, the drone will be an indispensable robot to manage the crops automatically, making not only the mapping of the area and the recommendation that the producer needs to improve his productivity, but also the application of the necessary inputs.
A partnership between the University of São Paulo and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) is already working to develop the system, as well as to test the efficiency of the use of drones in the application of biological inputs. Important biological agents include fungi and some types of predatory insects. Currently, drones are being used for the release of a type of wasp to combat sugarcane borer – wasps are natural predators of this pest. Approximately 100 hectares of crop can be covered in just 20 minutes of flying, a much faster operation than a soil product application. The goal of research is to evaluate the efficiency of the drones in the application of biological agents, and to improve the automatic planning data of the spray missions – information gathering to develop application schedules, which will provide the recommendations to the farmer.
As an eye in the sky, these flying machines have allowed the Brazilian farmers to better understand the landscape of their crops, providing precise and reliable data. Affordable and agile, drones are transforming the profile of agriculture. The technology features it can have will increase farm productivity in Brazil and the rest of the world.