When most urban people think of farming, it’s some amalgam of American Gothic, John Deere tractors, Walker Evans’s Dust Bowl photography, a Farmersonly.com ad, and a Levi’s commercial. That image is steadily being updated to include the operation of drones. As Modern Farmer notes, the future of farming may include “insanely precise drones” delivering the specific amount of fertilizer that a plant needs to thrive.
Now, a research team from Aarhus University in Denmark has come up with a way to pinpoint the precise nitrogen needs of individual plants by looking at the way light reflects off a plant’s leaves, which is pretty cool. Normally knowing how much nitrogen-based fertilizer a plant needs to grow is a delicate balance between producing leafy greens and, well, a bomb. Nitrogen fertilizer—used by organic and GMO farmers alike—can account for up to half the cost of running a farm, and, in excess quantities, can encourage non-native or invasive species, contaminate ground water sources, and damage soil. And new research indicates that increases in rainfall and extreme weather because of climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen polluting rivers and other waterways.
The study, published in the European Journal of Agronomy (check your local newsstands!), hints at more promise for drones in so-called precision agriculture. After infrastructure (like solar farms), agriculture is thought to be the second most lucrative market for commercial drones, according to a 2016 report on the future of drones by PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a potential value of $32.4 billion per year.
While systems are still being developed, the Danish team just received funding for a follow-up project in which they will use their hyper-precise fertilization methods in the field using drone, satellites, and sensor technologies. That means that in the near future, farmers may be using drones to detect each plant’s individual nitrogen needs and delivering the exact right amount of fertilizer. That should leave them with more efficient farms, a cleaner environment, and plenty of time to update their farmersonly.com profile.