Flying robots are now your farmhands.

Drones--unmanned, programmable flying vehicles once known exclusively as tools of the military--are making their way into industrial and consumer spaces. They exist as part of a larger trend of Industrial Internet elements like sensors and data sweeping into traditional and unconventional sectors.

Surprisingly enough, the farm industry is blazing the way as an early adopter of drone technology. With agriculture, the real-time, aerial, and time-lapse information offered by the sensors on drones helps farmers make better decisions about expending resources to maintain their crops.

Roving shepherds with all-seeing eyes
What crops need more attention? How can you use water and fertilizers more effectively and efficiently?

Farmers are beginning to find answers to these questions through the multitude of aerial sensors available on drones. These sensors can provide a bird's eye glimpse into irrigation patterns, soil variation, and infestations. Equipped with multispectral cameras, GPS, powerful processors, and digital radios, drones have become a low-cost (less than $1,000 each) way for farmers to see patterns and changes in their crops. With near-infrared light sensors, for instance, it's possible for drones to provide a high-level picture of chlorophyll levels in plants, revealing the healthiest and least healthy crops at a glance.

But what really makes drones efficient is they are automatic; with programmable flight plans, drones can take off to inspect certain regions on regular intervals, capture information, and come back and transmit data for analysis all on a single charge. There's no need for manual control, which means farmers can devote their time to acting on information instead of gathering it.

Big (data) Agriculture
Drones are just one part of a larger push toward data-driven agriculture. With so much high-stakes decision-making involved in farming, big data offers the capability to supplement a farmer's experience with micro and macro knowledge previously unavailable.

Made possible by inexpensive ground and air sensors, easy wireless connectivity, and accessible software and analytics platforms, big data is providing real-time insights into hitherto difficult-to-measure quantities like soil quality, hydration level, seed rates, and weed and pest control. The key is that because this information is collected dynamically, decisions can be made both based on immediate need and long-term goals.

The other side of big data agriculture is its ability to help save on resources. With environmental and economic concerns about wasted water, materials, and energy abound, having detailed information into what parts of a farm need more attention than others allows for more efficient and effective deployment of resources. Also, since differences in landscapes play major roles in crop cultivation, big data can optimize the unique land features available to a farmer to foster a productive and efficient diversity of crops and use land optimally.

From drones to ground sensors, the Industrial Internet revolution is reinventing agriculture. But instead of sidelining farmers to unimportant roles, it's doing the opposite - giving them more information and more power to do what they do best - make decisions. 

About the author

GE Digital

Driving Digital Transformation

GE Digital connects streams of machine data to powerful analytics and people, providing industrial companies with valuable insights to manage assets and operations more efficiently. World-class talent and software capabilities help drive digital industrial transformation for big gains in productivity, availability and longevity. We do this by leveraging Predix, our cloud-based operating system, purpose built for the unique needs of industry.