Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs

Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs - 31/01/2014 - Farmers Weekly
06 February 2014
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Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs
Oliv er Mark
Friday 31 January 2014 09:35
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A conference on agricultural drones at Harper Adams University last
week was certainly well-attended. But will these high-tech/high-price
pieces of equipment prove to be the answer to arable farmers’ crop
surveillance needs? Oliver Mark reports
Take a wander through the halls of any major farm machinery show and
you’ll notice that newly-formed companies offering precision agriculture
services are popping up like daffodils on a spring morning.
The most eye-catching are those offering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
to help fine-tune chemical and fertiliser application plans. The tumbling cost
of components parts and the improvements in cameras and mapping
systems have made these types of machines well-suited to agricultural life.
That’s mainly because they solve a perennial farming problem – how to get a
good look at a field almost plant-by-plant. Traditionally, satellites have been
used to provide images but these can sometimes be short of detail and may
not be available at all when there’s thick cloud cover.
See also: Drones could bring benefits to arable farmers
GPS-guided UAVs, on the other hand, offer the flexibility of attaching multiple
sensors – visible light, infrared or thermal – to determine different features of
a crop. These can be used to recognise things like weed types, disease
pressures, plant stress, crop damage, nitrogen requirements and yield
potential. UAVs can also fly low enough to get a very detailed look at the
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Individual farmers thinking of buying a
drone will find the initial purchase cost
difficult to stomach. It can be anything
from £10,000 for the most basic up to
£50,000 versions – so it’s better suited
to farmer co-operatives that can get the
most use out of them.
Prices generally vary according to the
design you go for. Fixed wing,
aeroplane-shaped UAVs can travel
Piloting a UAV
The Civil Aviation Authority
(CAA) governs air space,
although its rules seem a little
In simple terms, if you’re flying
your drone for your own use
then there’s no need to have
any qualifications (provided it
further, faster and for longer, but have
limited sensor-carrying capabilities.
Alternatively, multi-rotor types are more
power hungry and chew through the
batteries more quickly, but have a
decent undercarriage for mounting
cameras and sensors.
You’ll also need to add the cost of
servicing and maintenance to the initial
outlay, not to mention that the whole
unit might only have a three-year shelf
life. It’s also worth bearing in mind that,
at best, you’ll manage about 100 flying
days per year in the UK given our
unpredictable climate.
Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs - 31/01/2014 - Farmers Weekly
weighs less than 20kg). The
limitations are that you must fly
within your visual line of sight –
400ft upwards and 500m
across – and more than 50m
from buildings and people.
However, if you’re planning to
use your UAV to provide a
service (and charge people
money accordingly) then the
rules are slightly different and
you’ll need to apply to the CAA
for permission to fly.
However, customer charges can reach more than £1,000 a day, so there’s
still a very reasonable profit to be made.
Data collection
The challenge is to turn the pictures provided by the drone into something
that can be used to bolster yields. So, rather than hanging a high-end digital
camera from the undercarriage, drones can carry a mass of sensors to
detect different things.
Agrovista is one company conducting trials into the accuracy and calibration
of different sensors. It is working with Ursula’s Scout surveillance system to
monitor crops at two UK test sites.
The first, at Maidwell along the blackgrass corridor of the A14, was surveyed
three times by Ursula last year. Kitted out with the correct sensors it was able
to count the number of blackgrass heads across the site after different
chemical applications.
The second site focused on monitoring crop nutritional needs and disease
pressures, and the company says that the information gathered could be
used to create localised spraying plans and variable rate fertiliser maps for
the future.
However, spraying technology isn’t quite keeping pace. The obvious answer
looks to be direct injection systems – Berthoud launched one at the Sima
show last year – to target particular areas of a field with a particular chemical
Is it realistic?
The short answer is yes. But only once it can be made financially viable for
Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs - 31/01/2014 - Farmers Weekly
broad-acre combinable crops. That means companies need to it easier for
farmers to make full use of the information provided by the surveillance
system in a way that allows them to cut input costs or improve yields.
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