Miniature fixed-wing airplanes, quadcopters and other multibladed small helicopters are aircraft equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a standard point-and-shoot camera controlled by the autopilot; software on the ground can stitch aerial shots into a high-resolution mosaic map. Before, a traditional radio­controlled aircraft needs to be flown by a pilot on the ground. Now, UAVs can be auto-piloted to do all the flying, from auto takeoff to landing. Its software plans the flight path, aiming for maximum coverage of the farms and controls the camera to optimize the images for later analysis.

This low-altitude view gives a perspective that farmers have rarely had before. Compared with satellite imagery, it’s much cheaper and offers higher resolution. Because it’s taken under the clouds, it’s unobstructed and available anytime. It’s also much cheaper than crop imaging with a manned aircraft.

The introduction of UAVs this small, cheap, and easy to use is due largely to remarkable advances in technology: tiny MEMS sensors (accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers, and often pressure sensors), small GPS modules, incredibly powerful processors, and a range of digital radios.

UAVs can provide farmers with three types of detailed views.

  • Seeing a crop from the air can reveal patterns that expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that aren’t apparent at eye level.
  • Airborne cameras can take multispectral images, capturing data from the infrared as well as the visual spectrum, which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights differences between healthy and distressed plants in a way that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
  • UAV can survey a crop every week, every day, or even every hour.

Combined to create a time-series animation, that imagery can show changes in the crop, revealing trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.