This article is part of our special report How is tech revolutionising the agricultural sector?.
France is experimenting with drones as a means of spraying pesticides so that by 2021 it can launch the practice as it could lead to more precise treatments, as well as a reduction in the use of phytosanitary products. EURACTIV France reports.
In recent years, the use of agricultural drones has increased, especially as these can reach steep plots of land and spray phytosanitary treatments as close as possible to where the products are needed.
But could these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) revolutionise the sector?
“With agricultural drones, we optimise spraying and can thus pay more attention to the number of products used,” explained Mikaël Montagner of international drone manufacturer, Drone Volt.
With the latest sales figures for 2018 showing an alarming 21% increase in the use of pesticides, the French agricultural sector remains highly dependent on inputs despite France’s so-called ‘Ecophyto’ pesticide reduction plan striving to halve the use of these chemicals since 2008.
In other words, France is facing an unprecedented challenge in trying to reduce the use of phytosanitary products.
While spraying drones can be part of the panoply of new technologies to reduce the use of plant protection products, their development is still in its early stage.
And for good reason.
Until the French decided to launch an experiment on spraying drones in October 2019, the practice was banned as ‘aerial spraying’ was considered highly harmful to the environment. By October 2021, however, the experiment should make it possible to determine the benefits of using aerial spraying drones.
But for the time being, only farms that have agricultural plots “with a slope greater than or equal to 30%” can take part in the experiment. Besides, UAVs are only allowed to spray organically certified products or can be applied to plots of land that carry the so-called ‘high environmental value’ certification.
These agricultural drones, therefore, allow farmers to access areas that are difficult to reach with traditional farming tools, as well as to fine-tune the number of products used by targeting the parts of the land requiring treatment.
“The use of agricultural drones is of definite interest to plots of land with high added value, including in the viticulture sector or when there are particular slopes, such as those in Alsace,” explained Mikaël Montagner.
Besides the cost of the drone, which can amount to around €30,000, the spraying operation needs to be carried out by an experienced pilot. Weather conditions can also affect the use of the spraying drone. Using agricultural drones to spray pesticides, therefore, requires the mobilisation of plenty of resources.
Although the use of agricultural drones for spraying pesticides remains in its infancy, these UAVs can be used for other purposes.
So-called ‘plot mapping’, for example, took off in 2016 after drones were made available for civilian use in 2012. UAVs are, therefore, being used to identify nitrogen-deficient areas where crops have difficulties growing, so that drones can calculate the necessary nitrogen doses as precisely as possible.
Used in large-scale cereal crops, ‘plot mapping’ can improve the profitability of a farm by applying the right product to the right place at the right time, a task which proves to be quite the challenge for cereal growers who sometimes have to keep an eye on hundreds of hectares of crops.
Could drones be used in livestock farming?
Another prospect for the agricultural drone is the surveillance of herds on livestock farms, which sometimes spread over many hectares of farmland.
“Drones equipped with a thermal or photographic camera can facilitate the monitoring and counting of animals,” Montagner added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gerardo Fortuna]