How drones are quietly changing the face of Ontario agriculture

The same technology that powers unmanned airstrikes in the world's worst war zones is also is also behind a quiet revolution that's transforming agriculture from the skies above Ontario's heartland.

A 21st century twist on the idea of swords to ploughshares

The same technology that powers unmanned airstrikes in the world's worst war zones is also is also behind a quiet revolution that's transforming agriculture from the skies above Ontario's heartland. (The Associated Press)

The same technology used in military aviation "drones" is flying over farmland in southwestern Ontario, and it is quietly changing the face of agriculture.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become part of a farmer's strategy for crop and livestock management, helping drive an era of "data-driven" agriculture, which could reduce food costs and help the environment.

Smaller, more powerful, inexpensive UAVs are devices about the size of a bread box in the shape of anything from miniature fixed-wing aircraft to rotor-bladed "quad-copters" loaded with high resolution point-and- shoot cameras, thermal imagery, geographic information systems, flight pattern software and GPS.

Smaller, cheaper and more powerful

Dr. Mary Ruth McDonald of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph has been researching the power of UAVs and their imagery at the Holland Marsh, an hour or so north of Toronto.

She says the units are getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful, making them an attractive crop management technology for farmers in the last 10 years.

Drones are becoming increasingly common on farms as they're used to spray crops in areas that are difficult to access. The aerial vehicles are even being used to count the amount of crops, such as apples in an orchard. (Submitted by Jim Fitzgerald)

"Even before that, people were interested in satellite images to assess crops. In the last 10 years, the whole area has really exploded to include things like using drones to spray areas that are difficult to access, and using drones for things like counting apples in an orchard," McDonald said.

Researchers like McDonald say that UAVs provide farmers with precise information because the systems can see what people can't.

Drones see what people can't

"While the human eye can detect a lot by looking at images, drone technology can add a layer of objectivity. The images provided by the drone and counting the pixels are a finer and more accurate assessment of the amount of disease in a plot or a treatment," she said. 

AgTech GIS of Embro, near Woodstock, Ont., is a crop-input service provider and consultant providing Ontario agriculture with technologically advanced imagery collection and analysis.

"We use a lot of all the latest technologies, whether GPS or receivers to all the tractors and combines," according to AgTech's Karon Cowan, "Everything we do is mapped and all the information is spatially related."

UAV technology means accessing rugged terrain, covering huge acreages of crops, analyzing water content in soil for irrigation, and helping ranchers track their roaming herds.

Images collected from UAV flights can save a farmer money when it comes to assessing crops and help reduce chemicals going into the soil. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

There is even technology that can distinguish between weeds and crops and then communicate that information to a weeding machine on the ground.

Unlike satellite imagery, which provides information many days after flying over, UAVs can be used daily, even hourly, with software that can combine images as a time lapse animation of the crop or field.

Saving money and the environment

Felix Weber is a crop consultant who operates Ag Business & Crop in Palmerston, Ont., in Wellington County. He says images collected from UAV flights can save a farmer money and help reduce chemicals going into the soil.

He gives an example of wheat damaged over the winter. Rather than adding nitrogen to the entire field in trying to save the wheat, UAV analysis suggested targeting only certain areas of the field. That saved money and was more environmentally friendly.

"My recommendation was not to apply nitrogen where there wasn't enough wheat. That was a cost savings to the farmer and 80 per cent of nitrogen was added rather than 100 per cent."

Drones, also known as unmaned aerial vehicles or UAVs, are getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful, making them an attractive crop management technology for farmers in the last 10 years. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"We made a decision based on actual acres that we saw," said Weber.

Human expertise out in the fields combined with preemptive drone strikes of timely, accurate aerial information could conceivably mean that farmers can keep more money to build their businesses at the same time consumers can save money on food, according to OAC's McDonald.

"One advantage of this technology is early detection of diseases or insect pests, so that's a good thing for the farmer and the consumer."


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.