Data is ruthless. In 2050, the Earth will be inhabited by approximately 9 billion people. The need to feed this rapidly growing population, climate change and sea level rise constitute the challenges that will need to be faced by the global agriculture in the century to come. It will be very difficult to adjust modern farming to the requirements set by the 21st century without the help of advanced technology. Implementation of the Big Data concept seems to be a well in the desert waiting for a thirsty wanderer.
Big Data may be applied not only in eCommerce or in logistics, but can be used to guide numerous sectors. For now, farming has been raised to a really advanced level on a big scale especially in two countries: in the United States and in Australia. Due to the involvement of industry, especially thanks to the powerful lobby that made this involvement happen, we may observe a rapid development in the agro-technological field. The United States are a special case here, because they put much emphasis on the analysis of big amounts of farming data.
In the last few years, a small group of farmers and sellers of agricultural equipment has done some experiments with unmanned aerial vehicles, the so called UAV, better known as drones. The primary aim of their research was to obtain, process and analyze the photos and data collected from the farmlands. The research brought the expected results and gave hope for the revolution in the entire sector. The well-developed part of the farming industry quickly picked up on this idea and started to promote the use of drones in order to develop the possibilities related to modern farming.
The United States hold more and more farming fairs, where the farmers may participate in special workshops that teach them how to use drones and Big Data to improve their work. What is interesting, during the last decades, the usage of GPS and data sensors became a standard in the farming industry in the USA – it became known as the “Precision agriculture”. So the technology of such type is not totally new for the farmers.
So far, the information required by the farmers has been obtained on the basis of data collected from tractors and agricultural machinery during seeding, and then merged with data collected during harvest. The main disadvantage of this solution is that there is no possibility to process the data in real time, which excludes the possibility to react to changeable conditions, e.g. the weather. The collected data helps the farmers to make a decision on what and when should be seeded in the following season. Drones significantly improve this situation. Specific information related to the crops may be obtained already when the plants are growing, so data processing takes place in real time. In the case of any problem, the farmers may act to save their crops.
Farming-dedicated drones are small, simple, elegant and easy to use. Moreover, the price of the most basic device with a digital camera used to monitor the field is really affordable (about $500). More complicated systems cost more, between $2,000 and $30,000. They have more functionalities, for instance, they can be used to create special models that present the distribution of moisture in each sector of the field. Such a system allows for the acquisition of navigational data, which makes it possible for the tractor operators to effectively plan their routes. Some problems that occur in the farms affect parts of the farm fields only and are caused mainly by nutrients deficiency. Some areas lack nitrogen, some lack phosphorus. More advanced drones with cameras and GPS are able to provide the coordinates of such areas, making it easier to re-cultivate them effectively. Research conducted by the scientists from the University of Minnesota proves that the use of drones may maximize the agricultural production and save from $10 to $30 per acre, for instance due to the reduction of fertilizer costs.
For now, the use of drones in agriculture may be described with a known proverb “prevention is better than cure”. Monitoring the crops in real time makes the farming more effective and productive. However, one question that still needs to be asked is: “will Big Data help in any, maybe more advanced way, to feed 9 billion people?