3D image of a river gorge, created with the use of UAV. (Photo: Courtesy of Rodrigo Aguilar)

Most of planet Earth consists of water. However, only 0.77% of it is fresh water that is accessible to humans. The problem of water scarcity has steadily increased around the world.

That’s why people have sought to reconsider practices and to develop technologies that are capable of dealing with this situation. Such is the case with drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), which are starting to gain importance within the agricultural sector.

According to data from the World Bank, 70% of the water extracted around the world is for food production. In Mexico, the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) has identified that the water used by this sector makes up 76% of the total.

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Military-use drones

This technology was originally intended for military use. Over time, its purpose has changed. First, it was a present for boys and girls. Then, it was used in academia and industry. Now, it is being used in agriculture.

In this last sector, drones are used as an option for acquiring accurate information, as well as reducing the time taken to obtain the data.

“They’re also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). A drone is, essentially, a flying robot. It can be controlled remotely or it can fly autonomously, using flight plans generated in software that’s integrated into the system, which works in conjunction with the GPS,” explains Rodrigo Aguilar Vera, an expert on spatial analysis in solid waste management.

UAVs consist of small, multifunctional sensors and autonomous navigation systems. They also have an integrated system of instruments: a gyroscope, which measures speed and orientation; an accelerometer, which measures acceleration and tilt; a barometer for atmospheric pressure and determining altitude; a compass, which measures the direction of magnetic north; and a GPS used to locate the vehicle.

According to experts, the search is on for new drone technologies to innovate in the area of freshwater management, mainly in the following areas:

Monitoring and management of agricultural crops (multispectral cameras)

Using spectral cameras and image filters, drones are able to identify color variation in order to reduce the consumption of supplies and losses (known as precision agriculture).

“With color variation, it’s possible to monitor crops and to know when the best time to harvest is, whether there’s any disease, or if the plants are experiencing hydric stress,” says Aguilar Vera.

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3D models of basins, channels, lakes, and rivers

Three areas of study have been identified in agriculture: sources of water, the infrastructure necessary to convey water, and land for farming.

Depending on the growing region, using drones allows us to see basins, channels, water circulation, and to measure the water in reservoirs.

Optimal use of water

This mainly refers to the use of the appropriate amount of water for agricultural production. “Aerial drones allow us to measure the water surface and floating ones measure sedimentation, which enables us to identify the water storage capacity,” says Aguilar Vera.

Innovation and development

In the future, the use of drones in agriculture could bring many benefits. For example, if you have one specifically for weed removal, the water used in irrigation would be utilized by your plants.

However, Aguilar Vera laments that the problem with the optimization of water is that farmers aren’t thinking about using less water, but about obtaining as much profit as possible.

Water scarcity is a constant issue. The search for new technologies to apply to sustainable water management is only the tip of the iceberg. In any event, people are looking to innovate from different angles, such as science, technology, culture, and education, in order to find fresh solutions to water’s current plight.

A bleak outlook

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, it’s estimated that food production will have increased 70% by 2050, and almost 100% in developing countries.

The demand for essential supplies has grown as a result of climate change and population growth. However, nature will not be able to produce at the exponential rate expected.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), water scarcity will affect 5 billion people by 2050.