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A History of Drones: From Humble Beginnings to the Impact on Plant Breeding

Published August 25, 2020 by Christopher Leonard, President, Agronomix Software Inc.

We often think of drones as a “new technology”, but the history of drones can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th Century. Arguably, drones have had the biggest impact on plant breeding in the 21st century. We have seen an escalation in new agriculture technology over the last twenty years. However, the last 10 years has seen the quality of lightweight cameras improve significantly. Additionally, personal drones have become a lot more affordable.

Agriculture drones helped to set innovation-based revolutions that moved the industry into “Agriculture 4.0”. This defines new standards of precision in crop production. The overall phenomenon holds a history behind their breakthrough in agriculture during 2011.

A History of Drones

History of Drones: Humble Beginnings

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The evidence about the first use of aerial vehicles dates back in 1921. The USDA, in collaboration with the US Army, deployed it for crop dusting at McCook Field (Dayton, Ohio). Aerial vehicles helped farmers again in 1939. The Royal New Zealand Air Force assisted with the spread of seeds, mixed with fertilizers. Nikola Tesla induced radio-waves in 1898, the technology took a long time to develop them RC-air planes and helicopters. The hobbyists took advantage of RC and transistor technology to fly models during the 1960s. Then helicopters entered the scene. A US farmer, Robert Seesholtz, hired helicopters to whip down warm air to protect strawberries from frost injury in 1978.

History of Drones: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

One probable evidence of using a partly un-maned vehicle for agriculture seeding comes from a New Zealander: John Chaytor. Chaytor used a hot air balloon steered with ropes from the ground. Then in 1970, Dr. Dieter Schlüter created a model RC-helicopter. However, the founder of drone technology is considered to be Abe Karem. He built the first fully functional drone for Israel in 1974 but not meant for agriculture. But, Israel has made significant developments in agriculture drones more recently.

History of Drones: The First Camera Drones

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The first evidence of using a camera on a drone is reported on research by Thurling in 1985. In his research, he used one for for taking vertical images of weeds in an oilseed crop. Two years later, Yamaha demonstrated an R-50. It is considered to be the ever first UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for dusting crops. Later in 1989, Yamaha introduced a commercial version of the R-50. Unfortunately, it had complicated handling and did not comply with international flying regulations.

The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences took the lead in 1991 in developing a camera drone. It was used for taking observations on crop trials. Another development came from a Hungarian engineer Laslo Kiss who introduced a methanol-driven UAV that weighed 17 kg. Another claim for using a camera drone came from Dr. Anders Larsolle (SLU) in 1992 for studying late blight in potato. Drones used for the monitoring of climate data and environmental features in 1993.

Impact in the 21st Century

The University of Bourgogne, France considered using RC- aircraft equipped with a camera to fetch agriculture field images in 2001. The concept of having a personal drone came to fruition in 2006 when these flying machines became flying cameras. But they were still out of reach of general user due to higher costs. Blair started developing a fixed-wing UAV in 2006 and operated in the same year.

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In 2009, the Centre for Field Robotics developed a fixed-wing drone for a cattle farm in western Queensland, Australia. It monitored Weed infestation; later spraying the weeds with herbicide by a Quadcopter. They also used drones to detect locust swarms in the same facility. The Australian Almond Board used drones for crop estimation in 2013. Parrot, a French Technology company, induced its’ ready to fly Wi-Fi drone in 2010. It is the first-known smartphone-operated drone.

The innovations kept things moving ahead strategically in the drone industry. At the moment, precise decisions in agriculture are based on their deployment. They are typically doing tasks like:

  • crop inspections
  • pests and disease identification and their control
  • crop mapping
  • crop estimation
  • irrigation control
  • monitoring the climate data

Drone Usage in Plant Breeding

Along with other achievements, plant breeding embraced the evolution of cloud computing with cloud-based plant breeding software to assist  breeding programs with cross prediction, population and hybrid development, and much more. The management and analysis of “big data” has impacted plant breeding in this context.

The use of drones in modern agriculture has risen significantly thanks to the ability to collect and use agronomic data helpful in the selection of superior genotypes. The data gathered can be analysed quickly using powerful market-leading software like PlotPhenix from Progeny Drone. Whether for agronomic trials, variety trials or breeding experiments and nurseries, drone data presents cost savings and research efficiencies.

Drone Data and Genovix

We are continuously responding to the industry challenges to improve and upgrade our software and analytics that meet the demand of researchers in plant breeding. Genovix, our new software available on the cloud, empowers plant breeders and variety testing researchers in data management, plant breeding processes, inventory management and advanced analytics to increase productivity and efficiency. The latest development is the integration of data and field plot images from drones with Genovix, thus providing even more possibilities for researchers globally.

Find out more about Genovix from the Agronomix website.

Agronomix Software Inc. and Progeny Drone Inc.

Agronomix Software has a Strategic Alliance with Progeny Drone Inc. We have been been impressed by their innovation and dedication to embracing new technologies to the benefit of the plant breeding industry. PlotPhenix is a revolution in this industry and deserves a closer look.

Agronomix/Progeny Joint Webinar

Click here to watch the joint webinar by Agronomix and Progeny Drone 

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