Agriculture – Unmanned

A 2010 study in Iowa calculated that each $1 spent on aerial application resulted in a $2.68 increase in crop yield. The upside differs by crop, location, and timing but the benefits of aerial application on food production can be dramatic. While routinely employed for distributing fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides, at its best it can salvage a season’s crop (and resources) by rapidly knocking down a late season infestation.

The cost to aerially treat an acre of land by modern crop-dusting planes is about $9 per acre excluding the applicant. For a helicopter to perform the same task it costs $16 per acre and takes about two-thirds longer. Both costs are dependant on proximity to local airports – if your farm is not near one, your costs are higher. The US has over 5,000 local airports. Among the major growers, Brazil is second with 29% of the airport density of the US. India has only 7%, and Russia and China less then 5%. These countries lack the general aviation infrastructure that is essential for aerial application.

A promising alternative to extend the benefits of aerial application without aircraft is to trailer an unmanned aerial applicator to work the fields instead. Operating just 15’ above the ground and without transitioning through public airspace, the reliance on aviation is broken. An unmanned applicator can treat an acre of land for about $3 per acre regardless of proximity to airports. While not as fast as an ag-plane, total coverage can be comparable as it operates longer hours and without return trips to an airport. Such a system would allow developing countries to increase food production without first having to develop an aviation sector.

The same benefits apply to countries with adequate infrastructure, for different reasons. In Japan and the US urbanization is encroaching agricultural land, limiting ag-aircraft operations in those areas. In Europe as well as the US the incursion of wind turbines and power transmission lines over farmlands creates hazard areas that are putting more land out of the reach of pilots.

Increasing food production is a good reason to encourage unmanned aerial application – it benefits us all.