Drones in Agriculture

It’s largely agreed that the UK and Ireland have barely begun to tap into the huge potential that commercial drones have to offer.

An industry still in its infancy, the business world is still investigating ways in which drones and unmanned aerial vehicles in general can make operations faster, safer and more cost efficient.

One area that has been quicker to the party in leveraging ‘drone power’ is agriculture.  In fact 18% of farmers are now thought to be using drones in some form to assist them with their land management.  Particularly impressive for an industry that has been slow to embrace technological advancements in the past.

The advantages here of a camera in the sky are obvious.   Drones are capable of photographing large areas very quickly compared to traditional methods. Increases in resolution of modern aerial cameras mean that the resulting images can offer incredible levels of detail for the farmer to assess and evaluate both ground and crop health.  All of this can be accomplished without incurring fuel costs, risking damage to fields from tractors and quad bikes, and of course much faster than a ground level assessment.

For arable farms, drones can be employed at all stages of planting to provide valuable information.  Pre-planting surveys using multispectral imaging technology, can be carried out to fix problems and apply treatment before a seed meets the soil.  During the growth phase, aerial images showing reflectance, wavebands and vegetation indices such as NDVI and NDRE can assess progress in a non-invasive fashion and highlight areas that need attention before they spread.

Treatments and fertilisers can be applied with fixed-wing UAVs and drones built expressly for the purpose, faster than ground based methods and far cheaper than manned aerial vehicles.  The addition of thermal cameras can allow a detailed scientific assessment of crop health and the relatively low cost of purchase or hire can open up the area of precision agriculture to the smaller forms for whom it would have been previously inaccessible.

For livestock farms, there are potentially just as many advantages in deploying drone technology.  Regular survey flights can mean that rapid assessments of perimeter fencing is possible and targeted repairs can be carried out for immediate fixes before damage worsens and livestock wander.  Livestock counts can be performed quickly and efficiently when compared to carrying them out from ground level and animals need not be disturbed during the process.  Initial assessments for injured, ill or stranded animals can be carried out from a bird’s eye view so that treatment and rescue plans can be designed tailored to the animal’s specific needs.

In any business where large areas of real estate are involved, monitoring for both maintenance and security purposes is always going to be an issue.  Drone flights can solve many of the time, staffing and cost issues, allow from ground based employees to be dispatched to problem areas to take action in a highly targeted manner.

Agriculture is one of the main industries predicted to feel the benefits of UAV technology both in the UK, Ireland and beyond.

The Hands Free Hectare

The Hands Free Hectare project is one ground breaking initiative that is including drone technology to pioneer crops grown ‘remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground’.  Entering into its third year and sponsored by Harper Adams University and others, their results make interesting reading for anyone looking to the future of farming.  Of course, full agricultural automation is likely to be far into the future if it is ever available to any but the largest operators.  However, drones are allowing many farms a taste of the future today.

Do Farmers Need to be Qualified?

There’s been a lot of debate as to whether farmers need to obtain PfCO status in order to fly on their own land. However, the final word seems to have landed from the CAA in that the industry qualification does need to be obtained to be able to legally operate within 150m of a residential area or if imagery is to be shared with a third party (such as an agronomist) even if they are flying over their own land.  There is the cost and time involved in getting qualified to consider , as well as the purchase and maintenance of a craft and the relevant insurances.

Where this isn’t viable or desirable for a farmer, partnership with a local Drone Safe Register certified pilot can offer the perfect solution – all of the benefits with none of the overheads. You can find your professional certified drone pilot on the Drone Safe Register website or get in touch with us to find out more about working with our qualified and legal drone operators.

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About the Author: DSR Journalist

Harrison Green