How drones are helping Philippine farmers recover faster from typhoonsAlexa from the Philippine Drone Network
Modern drones have pushed innovation in a huge range of industries, but none may be as important as the help they give to farmers in disaster-prone areas.
In the Philippines alone, farmers are all too familiar with the devastating effects of floods and storm surges on croplands.
For a country that is visited by more than 20 typhoons every year, drone agricultural surveys have a huge potential to not only speed up recovery and rescue the livelihood of millions, but also improve planing to minimize the damage in the first place.
How agricultural drone surveys are used today in farming
Drones in agriculture specialize in surveying large land areas and collecting all kinds of data – from high resolution photographs to centimeter-level measurements to chlorophyll levels in plants – rapidly and accurately.
It is this unique capability that puts UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the perfect position to accelerate the recovery of agriculture when natural disasters strike.
1. Rapid Aerial Surveys to Identify Affected Areas
Emphasis on ‘rapid’.
Typically when farmlands are hit by floods, a damage assessment must be done manually for insurance purposes or as part of a government assistance process. This includes identifying all areas that were hit and what was the intensity of the damage.
It can take several weeks to completely survey and measure property and agricultural damage. In many cases, this is impossible to even do because they become inaccessible or extremely unsafe due to flooding, erosion and risk of landslides after a typhoon hits.
This is where drones come in.
1 person can cover 7 hectares of farmland a day. Drones can survey up to 200 hectares in any condition in less time. This means farmers can immediately learn which plots and crops were affected, and how much they were damaged.
As soon as the typhoon passes, a single drone can be sent out and within the day complete a full damage assessment. This lets farmers get assistance quicker from government agencies and for those agencies to know how much planting materials are needed for recovery.
The video above is an excerpt from the United Nations drone deployment in the Philippines together with the Department of Agriculture.
2. Remotely Measure Overall Crop Damage
Drones excel in collecting data and when used in surveys, they are equipped with sensors to collect a wide range of it.
The most important sensor in disaster areas are RGB cameras and GPS that capture high resolution images and video in real time.
When put together, these images can either be inspected visually to measure the amount of damage done to plots and crops, or be processed automatically through specialized software. Because of the speed and how easy it is for UAVs to collect this data, multiple surveys can be scheduled to track the growth of crops over time.
Besides from floods and typhoons, this method is also commonly used to monitor pest infestations to find which plots need to be isolated or cleared (the example above is from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) .
3. Identify Slopes and Elevation for Risk Management
Drones are extremely efficient at recording the topography of a property to highlight the areas with high risk of typhoon damage.
Topographic maps are typically used in construction, but are also applied in agriculture to create terrain models and contour lines. Maps like the ones below measure slopes to the centimeter level and show which low areas are most prone to flooding.
These are essential tools to find ideal planting areas when it comes to accessibility and resilience to calamities.
4. Monitor Soil & Crop Health Through Chlorophyll Levels
In some cases, a visual inspection isn’t enough to assess the condition of crops. With the additional sensors equipped, it is still easy for drones to detect which crops and plots of soil are healthy, and which are stressed or deficient, by measuring near-infrared light (NIR).
Healthy leaves contain chlorophyll which reflect a lot of near-infrared light. Drones can measure this NIR light with enough accuracy to spot individual plants or crops that are damaged or sick.
The sample survey map of an agricultural land above from drone sensor supplier MicaSense used chlorophyll levels to detect areas with unhealthy plants (red) and healthy plants (blue). The downside of this method is that NIR sensors are extremely expensive and the cost is hard to shoulder for small-scale farmers.
A similar method is used for soil analysis using moisture levels to find dehydrated areas that need additional irrigation.
Drones are now common tools in a huge range of industries, but we have only begun to take advantage of their speed and versatility when it comes to typhoon recovery in our local agriculture.
For more information on available drone services for crops and farmlands in the Philippines, click here.