Responsible consumption of forest products
15 April, 2019

Drones at the service of Sustainable Tropical Agriculture

By: Lenín Esaú Henríquez Dole,
Ph.D.Profesor Asociado en Cambio Climático y Manejo de Recursos Hídricos

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have become a working tool in many areas, including agriculture. Today, UAVs and the sensors connected to them are an essential part of Precision Agriculture (PA) and Farm Management Information Systems (FMS) (Wolfert, Ge, Verdouw, & Bogaardt, 2017). Currently, UAVs are used in many agricultural applications, e.g. to control crop health, reduce the application of fertilizers and pesticides, and detect diseases or pathogens in crops (Sylvester, 2018). The information gathered with this technology is constantly evolving and is revolutionizing agriculture to the point that some researchers claim that we are on the verge of the next agricultural revolution: the era of the digitalization of agriculture (Vitón, Roberto; García Plata, Gabriel Antonio; Soares, Yuri; Castillo, Ana; Soto Marió, 2017).

Within the range of sensors that connect to UAVs, multispectral sensors have been shown to provide the most information at the lowest cost for research. UAVs with multispectral sensors allow real-time information and/or spatial data to be obtained for deeper analysis to aid farmer decision making (Sylvester, 2018). Remote image acquisition, applied in agriculture, mainly uses the following bands of the electromagnetic spectrum: visible and infrared (IR). The wide IR band can also be divided into near IR (NIR), medium IR (MIR) and far IR (FIR) or thermal. The images obtained from the different bands help to compute indices that are related to the characteristics of the crops and therefore allow users to know their state at different times of the vegetative period of the plant (Rica Gutiérrez-Soto, Cadet-Piedra, Rodríguez-Montero, Araya-Alfaro, & Miguel, 2011). Undoubtedly, this technology offers an opportunity to improve current agricultural practices, optimize resources and care for the environment. The use of UAVs reduces the cost of hiring personnel in various agricultural activities, provides a more detailed mapping of the plot, and reduces the leachates that are contributed to the surrounding ecosystems.

Can we use UAVs for sustainable agriculture? Many of today’s problems can be detected with the use of UAVs in order to make the right decisions. At the most basic level, drones allow farmers to get a global picture of their crops, enabling them to detect subtle changes that cannot be easily identified by field samplers, such as detection and characterization of moisture levels. At their most advanced level, drones allow real-time information to be generated that helps monitor crops for timely decisions such as fertilizing or applying pesticides or planning machinery routes or automating irrigation systems.

At Zamorano, there is a conviction that new professionals in agronomic science must know, understand, apply and interpret the results of these new technologies for the correct implementation in precision agriculture. Students in Zamorano’s Master’s degree program in Sustainable Tropical Agriculture (MATS) have a line of research and a “Learning by Doing (AH)” program that allows them to create the necessary competencies to manage and interpret the information generated by these devices. These experiences allow students to have a competitive advantage over their peers in the local and regional labor market, or even to start their own business.

In tropical agriculture, UAVs offer an exceptional opportunity, as it is an area where this technology is being introduced. There are some companies in the local market that offer services derived from the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, but none have developed research specifically for agriculture. Many problems of tropical agriculture require research and solutions developed in the region itself, an example of which is the research being carried out by MATS professors to characterize the evolution of asphalt stain in corn, a disease endemic to Latin America (Mexico to Peru) that has induced great losses in farmers in the past. Researchers Carlos Puerto, Lenín Henríquez and Carolina Avellaneda from Zamorano, in collaboration with Purdue University (USA), are leading the work to demonstrate the relationship between the images captured by remote sensors of UAVs and conventional disease detection techniques, in order to generate the basis for early detection of this disease in the field in the future.

Zamorano, through its Master’s degree program MATS, is committed to the advancement and generation of knowledge. This line of research is growing, and it is intended that soon Zamorano will be a reference in Latin America in the generation of knowledge through research supported by drones in sustainable tropical agriculture.

References

Rica Gutiérrez-Soto, C., Cadet-Piedra, M. V. ;, Rodríguez-Montero, E. ;, Araya-Alfaro, W. ;, & Miguel, J. (2011). Agronomía Mesoamericana. Agronomía Mesoamericana, 22(2), 397–403. Retrieved from http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=43722407016

Sylvester, G. (2018). Agriculture in action: Drones for agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/I8494EN

Vitón, Roberto;  García Plata, Gabriel Antonio;  Soares, Yuri;  Castillo, Ana; Soto Marió, A. B. (2017). AgroTech: Innovaciones que no sabías que eran de América Latina y el Caribe | Publicaciones. Retrieved from https://publications.iadb.org/es/publicacion/14060/agrotech-innovaciones-que-no-sabias-que-eran-de-america-latina-y-el-caribe

Wolfert, S., Ge, L., Verdouw, C., & Bogaardt, M.-J. (2017). Big Data in Smart Farming – A review. Agricultural Systems, 153, 69–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.AGSY.2017.01.023

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