Are drones about to take flight?

With UK growers of fresh produce tentatively looking at how they can use drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles – to help them manage their crops, Produce Business UK investigates the potential as this new phenomenon gets off the ground

Not so long ago, small, unpiloted aircrafts whizzing through the sky were a sight most of us attributed to the likes of quirky hobbyists. Nowadays, however, these aircrafts are no longer flown just for fun. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, now have a wide range of uses, such as taking images for topographical surveys and aerial shots for films.

In the UK, the take-up of drones by British farmers and growers has been tentative, so far. Just a small proportion of the country’s agricultural and horticultural companies are investing in or trialling the technology. However, many in the industry are convinced that UAVs will play a key role in the management of food production in the near future.

The benefits

URSULA Agriculture is one such company that has put its faith into the benefits of drones. The Norwich-based firm is currently leading an Agri-tech, Innovate UK-supported research project with Fresca Group’s potato supplier Manor Fresh, the James Hutton Institute, Mylnefield Research, and Agrii, to examine how drones can help map out diseases in potato crops with a view to improved, targeted pesticide application.

URSULA Agriculture representative Alex Dinsdale explains that sensors inside the drones are able to capture data that helps detect weeds and diseases, such as potato blight. The sensors can also monitor a crop’s green, leafy areas and estimate crop yields.

Dinsdale says: “The sensors inside the drones give us data that is provided as digital numbers, which can be incorporated into any farm management software. We are getting measurements for factors such as crop cover so we can help growers to work out how many potatoes, for instance, are in their fields.

“We also carry out weed and disease mapping, and can use the technology to calculate the crop’s NDVI, which is the normalised difference vegetation index. This gives you a reading which correlates with the plants’ vigour, so growers can get an understanding of where in their field their plants are growing well and where they are growing the least.”

Dinsdale adds that the firm is also carrying out trials for plant breeders with the support of drones. “We are flying a UAV over the crop trials, which is a much more effective way of surveying the trial. The analysis we are able to provide on a crop-by-crop basis is also far more objective than someone trying to compare crops with their hands.”

A couple of years ago URSULA Agriculture also worked with potato growers Branston and Lamb Weston. Dinsdale explains: “This technology is all about getting an understanding of what’s going on in the field. The next stage is overlapping this data with other maps, such as soil maps. Then growers will be able to find out how it all relates – how productivity relates to final yields – and think about how to improve things like [crop] consistency across the field to get more consistent and predictable crops.”

The drawbacks

Dinsdale hopes that in 10 years’ time, every farmer, or at least agronomist, has his or her own drone and that the technology becomes a recognised tool in helping to manage input, reduce environmental losses, improve consistency and increase productivity.

But Oliver Wood, from crop production specialist Hutchinsons, explains that many growers have their reservations about the technology due to factors such as cost and the special license needed to fly a drone. “The licensing legislation that you have to apply for can be an issue,” Wood says. “The cost of buying the unit can be small but the licenses can be expensive.”

UK Aero Vision representative Gary Nel, whose firm worked with Plantsman PO’s Boxford Suffolk Farms last autumn to create a promotional video for Dolav pallet boxes, also says that, while the technology has been embraced in the United States, many British farmers are reluctant to try it out. For this reason, his firm has mainly carried out aerial land surveys for the construction industry, to date.

However, Nel predicts that the majority of farmers and growers will come round to the idea in the near future. He explains: “I think they [drones] will be hugely beneficial to farmers but they will struggle to invest in the technology in the short term until they realise how much money it will save them in the long term. But they will come around to it, just as the construction industry has. During the last six months [the construction industry] has gone from not believing in it, to believing in it.”

Getting off the ground

Fortunately for the UK fresh produce industry, the government has already acknowledged the importance of drones and is offering grants to help growers invest in this type of precision farming technology.

Jon Barfoot, commercial director of Chichester-based vegetable grower Barfoots, which has already applied for funding, says: “Every good farmer needs to work his crop but sometimes, in order to get a real perspective on nutritional or moisture problems, it’s very useful to get a bird’s eye view – it helps the decision process. It won’t replace good old fashioned crop walking but by using drones you can identify even more problems.”

Ultimately, those with the confidence to implement this technology envision all aspects of precision farming technology – from using drones in the sky to apps in the field – will come together to better help farmers and growers improve their yields and reduce their inputs as well as their waste.


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