Faine Greenwood

Drone technology could help farmers around the world monitor their crops, fend off pests, improve land tenure, and more. But to realise its full potential, regulatory regimes are necessary, while keeping citizens’ safety and privacy rights secure.

Three years ago, the average person had no idea what a drone was – or associated these flying machines with weapons of warfare. Things have changed. Now, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs (also known as drones) have become one of the world’s most publicised and intriguing technologies, used by people in a wide range of professions, from journalism to humanitarian aid work.

Farmers have always needed accurate and up-to-date information on the health of their crops and the environmental condition of the land. Agricultural aircraft have been in use since the 1920s, while agricultural experts increasingly use satellites to assess crop health from the sky. UAVs are a natural progression from macro to micro, from large-scale to small-scale farms.

While UAVs are unlikely to entirely replace manned aircraft or satellites, they have a number of advantages over these more traditional remote-sensing methods. The technology is capable of collecting very high-resolution imagery below the cloud level, with much more detail than the satellite imagery usually available to developing country analysts. They are easy to use: most drone mapping and data-collection missions are now conducted autonomously, meaning that the drone essentially flies itself, while drone data processing tools are becoming less expensive and easier to use.

Perhaps most importantly, drones are inexpensive. In 2016 it is possible to purchase a useful mapping UAV for less than $1,000. And surprisingly powerful mapping drones can be built at home for even less. While processing software can be expensive, open-source and lower cost options exist. Thanks to these low barriers to entry, UAVs are expected to provide significant help to farmers in developing countries, who historically have found it harder to access aerial imagery, either from manned aircraft or from satellites.

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