By: Claire Hodge, Head of Crops at Agri-EPI Centre
Agricultural drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are set to disrupt the agriculture industry owing to their immense potential to make agriculture more efficient, precise, and productive, driving the economic case for drone use. With farmers grappling with mounting pressure to boost production while adapting to climate change and dealing with increasing costs of production and changing support frameworks, drones present a compelling solution to improve the efficiency of the entire farming enterprise.
Growers and their advisors can exploit the technology for data collection to identify stressed areas of crops, study and map farmland, and improve irrigation efficiency. In addition to spraying water, fertilisers or pesticides on crops, drones can be used for livestock monitoring and tracking animal population and health.
Increased efficiency will drive the economic case for drone use. Drones can cover large areas of land, quickly and efficiently, provide quick and low-cost farm-related data to assist in effective decision making, and improve yield estimations, helping growers efficiently plan for storage, labour, farm resources, and transportation requirements with more certainty about the quality and quantity of the fruit crop being produced. Drones provide a higher level of accuracy, potentially reducing the frequency and quantity of agrochemicals used.
Labour shortages are a big challenge with the changing roles on farm, and through automation, drones allow labour to be redeployed to other farm operations. Making these jobs safer by reducing exposure to chemicals using drones to spray crops means that fewer staff will be exposed to chemicals compared to manual spraying.
The environmental impact of food production is under scrutiny and drones can help farmers reduce food waste by improving crop quality, reducing inputs and lowering CO2 emissions. The addition of drones in fields should also reduce the travel of heavy equipment going through the field on such a regular basis.
Precision agriculture practices, which can help farmers make better-informed decisions, have evolved significantly over recent years, with the global market now estimated to reach $43.4 billion by 2025. While drones have not yet made it into the mainstream agriculture space, they are playing an increasingly important role in precision farming, helping agriculture professionals lead the way with sustainable farming practices, while also protecting and increasing profitability.
The demand for agriculture drone services is consistently growing around the world, particularly Asia, South America, and Australia. Drone service providers are offering advanced solutions with improved quality and in-depth analysis, spurring service adoption. The demand for agriculture drones for mapping and spraying is substantially growing among the services, in areas of extensive production, remote locations, and low populations where access is difficult.
The landscape in the UK certainly differs to that of extensive cropping systems with many UK farmers working close to highly populated areas and with that comes a different set of risk factors to overcome.
Working closely with farmers across the Agri-EPI network and setting up a suite of drone capabilities we understand the true industry needs and the current limiting factors. Farmers want more robust and detailed crop data that will inform their decision making, however regulatory limiting factors for flying drones on farms, skills required to operate drones, and time involved are all concerns that need to be overcome to see this technology gain widespread adoption.
Working at Agri-EPI gives me the opportunity to work with farmers, regulators, and technology developers to overcome these challenges helping create innovative solutions for on-farm drone deployment.
Within the Agri-EPI network we are working with the top fruit industry, to use cutting-edge drone and machine learning technologies to provide growers with detailed crop insights, using drones with multi-spectral, hyper-spectral or lidar sensors with the aim to increase productive yield from an orchard by 10%.
To overcome the need for training on farm we are working with companies who can deliver ‘drone in a box’ systems where the drone arrives on farm ready to use, designed specifically for the farm needs. Drone in a box service that will allow a grower to remotely trigger a pre-planned drone flight will increase adoption rates.
There are also advantages to the use of BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) flights where one drone and operator can cover much larger areas in a shorter time, something which can be done cost-effectively by a service provider. Current Visual Line of Site VLOS operations are only within 500m. BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) allow the operator to be in an entirely different place to the drone and allow them to cover the last areas without having people on the ground to monitor.
There is ongoing work with HSE and the wider industry to start to answer some of the questions in Spray drone technology in order to implement greater safety measures and improved accuracy. This will allow areas that need low volumes of spray to be targeted and will allow for advantages when traveling across the ground is difficult or remote.
Drone technology is not a solo technology to overcome all on-farm challenges, but part of an integrated solution complimenting satellite and robotic technology and existing farm practice – allowing farmers to pick applications that work for their business.