The value of drones in precision agriculture from an EU perspective

There is already a vast number of articles related to the basic subject of drones in PA. This one will be a reflection on my experience related to the local EU environment.

First let’s briefly point out applications:

  • Crop scouting
  • Crop health monitoring – water stress, N-value, soil PH, etc.
  • Crop damage assessment for insurance after some major weather event
  • Crop counting for individual plants
  • Weed identification
  • Variable rate prescription maps – irrigation, fertility, pesticides, spray
  • Historical field data combined with latest maps deliver trends over time
  • Yield estimation
  • Herd monitoring
  • Anti-bird security – protect crops from bird damage

A list of advantages using drones in PA:

  • Save on inputs – up to 30% (?)
  • Fast delivery of results – within 10 minutes after the flight even offline onsite (depending on a setup)
  • Relative low cost compared to satellite or manned aviation – fast ROI
  • Easy to use and deliver results (in case of a decent setup)

Most of these applications are based on using Multispectral camera, some use IR, some need more expensive Hyperspectral. It all depends on the application use and cost of the system. From my perspective as a drone service provider, the business may have 2 options – either provide a service based product or provide an end-to-end solution product. Farmer has to decide if his application is worth investing into own drone, training, licensing, administration etc. or hire a service provider instead.

Now the single most prevalent issue on the actual application of this technology into EU farming practice is the agricultural market deformation caused by EU subsidies. Farmers are not evaluated based on the yield per hectare value but rather with fixed money per hectare/crop type. In such situation it simply makes no sense to invest into technology boosting yields while reducing inputs (main mantra of drones usage in PA). Forgive me if I’m wrong but so far this is my feedback. Maybe in different EU countries the application is variable, some have more success but in Slovakia where I live, this is a simple fact.

However there seems to be a minority of farmers who are not depending on EU subsidies and these provide a potential for this technology. I don’t know how about the US or other non-EU countries cope with the subsidies problem but unless EU makes a significant change in the agricultural subsidies policy, it makes no sense to apply any of the new technology in the long run.

Once I had an opportunity to talk to a local vineyard owner. He was interested in the technology but his questions were always too direct like how much I can save on inputs (too many variables in play) etc. I told him the first year would have to be experimental in order to get the first data and reflect these with the agronomic recommendations needed after consulting with local agronomist. It seems people are also afraid to invest in such technology unless they get definitive answers first. I understand this as you don’t want to make some more damage to your high value crops instead of a help. But without trying, there is no way forward..