Drones in Agriculture

Drones are revolutionizing agriculture.

What are the benefits and impacts of using drones?

A bird’s-eye view of the world is an innovation of only the past century. For millennia, humans could only see using their own eyes. An aerial perspective can be taken for granted with the modern widespread availability of satellite images. In the past decade, drone pictures have also become widely available.


Looking from above can provide a distinct and valuable perspective. The first remote sensing satellite was Sputnik 1, launched in 1957. With a bird’s-eye view, we can track how the Amazon basin has changed across decades, how much of the Earth’s ice caps have melted, or even predict which areas will experience flooding or landslides!

First Image taken by Landsat 1
The very first image taken by Landsat 1, which initiated the first land cover studies. The image depicts Dallas, Texas. Credit: USGS
The Southern Tibetan Plateau, captured by Sentinel-2 in 2016. Credit: USGS

Our ability to perceive the world from above has improved immensely over the years, at higher and higher resolutions . Drones extend our ability to do this. They act like miniature satellites that can capture a single field or hedge.

How are drones used in agriculture?

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are aircraft without a human pilot onboard. Have you ever used a remote to drive around a toy car? If so, you’ll easily be able to imagine using a drone! A human pilot usually controls them remotely from on the ground. Drones often have a variety of sensors and cameras. These can see wavelengths like infrared . Drones can be large or small, depending on their use—from aerial pictures to delivery and farming.


Infra-red is a wavelength of light that plants absorb. Different plants absorb infrared light differently. If crops and weeds are both present in a field, a drone can use its sensors and cameras to map the weeds so farmers can remove them!


Similar sensors can also be used to map how much water is present in the soil. These can suggest areas that need watering. Moisture levels can even be monitored over time to evaluate whether a particular system or watering plan is working.


Drones can be paired with robotics to perform some of the tasks that farmers usually do. When very large areas need to be sown with crops, drones can be loaded with a mixture of seeds, water, and fertilizers. These seeds can even be tree seeds if drones are being used for reforestation. Drones then spray the seed solution over fields, and the seeds can take root!


One key use of drones is in precision agriculture.  Farming is often done on massive scales. Hundreds of acres are sown with a singular crop, like soy or corn. At this scale, it’s impossible to pay attention to each and every plant! Drones take on some of this burden, spraying pesticides, insecticides, and even fertilizers right at the leaves of each plant. This can reduce the amount of chemicals used and benefit the environment. Agriculture is one of the leading causes of environmental chemical pollution worldwide.

Agri drones
An agricultural drone flying low to apply pesticide on cauliflower. Cauliflower is very commonly affected by worms. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Agridrones Solutions Israel

Fertilizers sprayed by drones can also improve crop yields. The human population around the world is growing. Effectively feeding the world is going to be a wicked problem. The area under cultivation can only increase so much. Improving yield on the land we already have will be key to feeding people everywhere.


Drones are even used in animal agriculture. Large, free-ranging herds often cover vast areas. It can be almost impossible to check on every animal every day. Drones can monitor herds and update farmers on their locations. Advanced drones accompanied by Artificial Intelligence can even upload data about animal health and inform farmers about animals that might be in trouble.

What could be some challenges in using drones?

Cost is one of the most important factors to consider when using drones. Although they can eventually reduce crop losses, improve yield, and reduce labor costs, it’s still a high initial investment! As drone technology continues to improve and be used more widely, technological improvements will reduce costs.


Another major concern with the use of drones is privacy. Fields aren’t just crop fields. Homes, businesses, and roads crisscross them too. Drones usually fly below 400 feet, and record continuously on their cameras. They may even actively broadcast data to their operator. Individuals living in areas where drones are used may feel a breach in privacy. It is important everyone agrees on how they are used.


The data collected by drones also needs to be kept safely. Data about crop health, soil health, and moisture levels can be critical. Adequate cyber security is necessary for agricultural drones.


Like most other tools, drones can have both positive and negative impacts. Drones can offer environmental and economic benefits, but proper management is necessary. Economic costs and privacy concerns need to be addressed. With effective oversight, they can serve as a powerful tool for twenty-first century agriculture.

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.5


Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 55.7


Infrared: A wavelength of light with a lower frequency than visible light; heat


Resolution: The smallest interval (distance between two points) measurable by a camera


Precision agriculture: Chemicals used to kill agricultural pests


  • Yamini Srikanth

    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!

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