Drone Technology becoming more grower friendly

Around five years ago, there was a lot of excitement surrounding drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) and their potential to help vegetables growers manage their crops. But whilst drones can, indeed, aid crop management, they have not yet been utilised to the extent that was initially predicted. There have been several reasons why this has been the case. Fortunately, these reasons are now being addressed to the point where the use of drones in horticulture crops could start to become more prevalent.

Software development

Agronomist John Cook of Field Product Services arguably sums up the drone situation accurately when he says: “It’s like many things that come along that look helpful. There’s a massive hype surrounding their potential; then there’s a lull whilst some of that potential is developed. They [drones] were not as helpful as they are now because there was no framework in place – and they were much more expensive.”

John notes that one of the key “missing links” in this technology has been the software. Fortunately, technologists have been busily processing data and creating new software to help make drones the useful tool they were purported to be.

One such expert is Keith Gearyof specialist aerial survey and technology developer, Low Level Earth Observation. He is currently working on the Innovate UK-supported Axomap – a suite of potato-growing apps that includes a planting app and a newly-patented harvesting app. The harvesting app identifies potato plants for harvesting according to the plants’ growth profile. Keith notes that, because “we can separate into batches those potatoes that have similar dry matter content,” growers will be able to be more efficient – including being able to selectively reduce their crop’s chemical sprout suppressant treatments like CIPC.

Keith has been using drones to collect high resolution imagery to help Axomap monitor and map the potato crops. As part of an Innovative Farmers project, John and Keith teamed up last year to deploy drones on three potato farms (two in Lincolnshire and one in the West Midlands). John says: “My growers and I worked with LLEO to develop and evaluate the Axomap potato model and prediction scheme for potato dry matter using aerial imaging.” Interestingly, the aerial imaging picked up the fact that the earliest-planted part of a field (that in theory should have the highest dry matter content) had less dry matter than the later-planted part. John says: “As it was more mature it was harvested first, leaving the least mature part to grow on. That resulted in a substantial [positive] financial impact.”

He adds: “We are now getting to a level of insight into the crop that we would never have had. The grower feedback has been things like: ‘this is how we should be going’ and ‘can we do this with other crops?’”

Another firm that is launching a new app – Skippy Scout – is Drone AG. The firm’s Edwin Nichols explains that the app has been developed because “most of the software we’ve seen so far is hard to use and it can be very difficult to get farmers behind it.” He adds: “We have tried to take the best bits from all the software we’ve tested and put them into one place along with our other ideas.

“It uses the drone as a mobile crop scouting tool and flies it around to different points. At these points the drone drops down and takes a detailed picture close to the crop. The AI [artificial intelligence] will then analyse this picture for weeds, disease and pest damage and will give you a growth stage and green area index. At the moment, the AI will be mainly based around cereals, but we have scope to further this to veg crops after our crowd funding campaign [due to be launched this spring].”

Spraying with drones

Engineering researcher Debbie Heeks reveals that a team at Harper Adams University is working on a number of projects with commercial drone operators, Drone Ag and Crop Angel, looking at spraying with drones. “This could lead to an exciting new development for the agriculture/horticulture sector” she says. “This type of precision application with a drone is a potential new development for the UK and something that Harper Adams University, the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), ag-chem companies and the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] are working on together.”

“Alongside Harper Adams University, the HSE is appraising this new technology and its implications for the application of plant protection products. The university has three spray drones from different manufacturers and they are all very different in their design. Using these and the exemption we gained from the CAA to spray, we are acquiring the data needed for a considered assessment and are in ongoing discussions with the CRD.”

Jonathan Gill, mechatronics researcher at Harper Adams University, adds: “People in China are already using spray drones. They map the field, with another smaller drone fitted with a camera, to find out where the problem areas are and then they use the spray drone to target those specific areas.”

The consortium consisting of Crop Angel, Drone Ag and Harper Adams University recently applied a biostimulant to a winter wheat crop on a farm in Norfolk using a spray drone and applications will continue through to harvest. Whilst the application of micronutrients and biostimulants does not require permissions from theHSE, the application of plant protection products via a drone is categorically subject to HSE (CRD) approval.

Debbie says: “Applying biostimulants or micronutrients could open up a new market to drone operators – as long as they gain permissions to do so. There are many steps involved in becoming a spray drone operator, and it is time to share that information with interested parties (such as farmers and growers and commercial drone operators). We will be running a workshop (or, depending on the level of interest, a series of three workshops in different parts of the country this October (2019). A number of different organisations will be involved in the running of the workshop, including Lantra, insurance providers and the HSE.

“The consortium is currently helping LANTRA to write the training material and assessment for drone spray operators. It will not only benefit horticultural and agricultural crops, including potatoes and vegetables, but also reduce chemical usage,” she says.

Jonathan adds: “This is a positive story for drones in view of recent events, but when it comes to new technology, we have to take considered steps.”

Counting plants

The drone incident that occurred in December (2018) at Gatwick Airport, perhaps highlighted that this technology is still new. We are still in the process of learning more about its potential and its limitations. Certainly, the legalities and cost of using drones – on top of the time and labour their use takes up – has been been off-putting for some growers. However, the reasons for using drones are gradually increasing as their capabilities improve.

Debbie, who manages the Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Interest Group at Harper Adams, reveals that one of the group members (from Hi-Sight Imaging) is using drone software to count plants. “Specifically, he’s been looking at counting pumpkin plants before they develop their fruits with the aim of acquiring yield estimates. His results were very, very close to the actual figure.” Meanwhile, G’s Growers is this year planning to use a drone on one of its UK lettuce crops as part of its precision growing strategy. The salad grower is mapping the fields and using these maps to produce vegetation indices to describe the variability across the field.

G’s Jacob Kirwan explains that, so far, G’s has only used drones on its Spanish farms – preferring to use a plane in the UK. This April, however, it plans to use a drone on one of its British farms. Jacob says: “Its more expensive than using a plane – the work can take a day or two – but, we want to try them [drones] out because you can collect higher-resolution data and more targeted info.”

Given the many developments that we are seeing in the drone sector, it is possibly safe to predict that now – finally – fresh produce growers can begin to fully utilise drone technology.