Drones are set to transform UK crop production – helping farmers keep a lid on costs at a time when growers are keen to optimise profitability.
Although drones have been used to monitor crops for a number of years, the benefits they could bring to increased productivity, cost reduction and the environment are only just starting to be understood, says Agrii’s lead pilot and technology trial manager Jonathan Trotter.
While initially the biggest steps forward are likely to be in the area of research and development, these could soon translate into an extended range of services and field applications with drones at their heart, he believes.
“The potential is huge. We are already starting to use drones with our customers to effectively identify early indications of potential localised problems such as nutrient deficiency or pest infestations before they become a major problem.
“As well as leading to more precise applications of fertilisers and pesticides, these are saving growers’ time, money and labour as well as delivering significant environmental benefits. But it really is just the tip of the iceberg.
“There are so many possibilities including swarms of drones applying specific agrochemicals to crops as well larger individual machines capable of carrying larger payloads, all controlled remotely and working with real-time data at an individual plant resolution.
“The issue moving forward is not really the potential of the technology, but ensuring it aligns with the legislation surrounding it and, to a degree, helping shape this.”
Agrii is putting itself at the very centre of this process, says Mr Trotter. It is working closing with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and other key bodies to establish safe working practices and operational strategies for the future, he says.
“We want to explore what is going to be possible and make sure it complies with all guidelines and legislation so growers and the wider industry can get the most benefit out of it.
“Such developments are likely to start on a trial-plot scale but we would then be looking at how we can take these forward to see if they would be viable options on a field scale.
“Data-driven decisions are the future of effective and resilient farm management practices and the more data our agronomists have at their fingertips, the better the advice they can give in the field.”
One agronomist already using drones to help clients get a clearer picture of their crops’ requirements is Agrii’s Andrew Lowe (pictured above).
“We’ve been developing various systems over the last two to three years and we’re starting to see some real benefits for producers now,” he explains.
“For the last 12 months, in particular, we’ve been concentrating on developing systems that can create an accurate green area index (GAI) in both wheat and oilseed rape.
“It’s much more accurate than satellite imagery as this can only distinguish between brown and green, so if you have blackgrass in there or other weeds, it will say it is all crop. The drones allow us to filter all this out to give as accurate a GAI as possible.
“These GAI results are then taken in by the system together with soil mineral nitrogen (SMN) results and, combined with a realistic target for yield, an accurate assessment of nitrogen requirement is produced.”
But there are already many other advantages to drone use in agronomy other than better nutrient management, he points out. “It’s really useful in oilseed rape for the timing of the flowering spray for sclerotinia, for example, and also for the timing of glyphosate pre-harvest timing.
“Walking through a rape field when it is fully podded is almost impossible. You get about 5m in and that’s about as far as you can go, whereas the drone can tell you how far podded the crop is or how flowered it is. It means you can time glyphosate application much more accurately.
“Another example is early plant counts in wheat just after the crop has started establishing. If you identify a thin crop you can decide to put some growth regulator on to try and help it tiller, roll it or make the decision to put some early nitrogen on.
“We’re also using the drones to develop a wheat yield prediction system that, once a crop has headed up, will estimate what the yield of that field is going to be.
“You can also use drones to find disease or pest hotspots in the field that you would otherwise not see and that might be the start of something bigger emerging. That way you can get in there and take some early pre-emptive action.”