The Agricultural Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) market is expected to grow to approximately USD 4.3 Billion by 2022, with growth at an annual rate of 27% between 2016 and 2022. However, the use of UAVs in livestock farming has generally lagged behind that of crop farming. Despite this, a number of livestock farmers have begun to find a use for UAVs on their farms. These uses include:
- Pasture management;
- Stock monitoring and herding;
- Checking fences and infrastructure.
One application is to assist with pasture management, as with arable cropping NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) scanners can provide data on water stress, and dry matter and can help identify areas of weed infestation.
UAVs can also be used to monitor livestock, especially in extensive operations, where sheep and cattle are grazing on widespread areas. Thermal imaging cameras help in locating lost animals, and identifying sick or injured animals. The combination of a UAV with RFID tagging technology could provide farmers with an accurate means to count and track individual animals from the air. UAVs could also help with predator control or domestic dog attacks and with security. Some farmers have tried using drones for herding, and although in some cases animals become accustomed to the presence of a drone – and do not move, the addition of a siren can move animals effectively. It may be that other new technology such as virtual fencing may provide a more effective way to move animals around.
Using drones to check fences and water troughs can save time, by eliminating the need to physically check the whole farm, and when problems are identified the correct tools, materials and equipment for repairs can be taken straight to the problem location, making repairs more efficient. UAVs can save farmers time, and at a time when labour is in short supply on many farms, this could prove to be a deciding factor.
Despite all this the traditional sheepdog is unlikely to disappear from many farms soon. Whilst the costs of UAV systems have come down significantly, the aviation regulations in many countries still limit the commercial use of drones to line-of-sight flights, which is likely to be a significant limiting factor for many extensive livestock farms. Other limitations include battery life, which limits the typical flight time for small drones to around 25 minutes. There is currently limited information available as to whether the use of drones can have any real financial benefits on stock farms. As with crop farming UAVs allow for the collection of more and more data, however, the real challenge for farmers is how to make the best use of that data.