Agricultural drones are becoming cheaper, better and more popular. How can farmers access the benefits while protecting themselves from the risks?
There’s been much excitement about agricultural drones in the farming community lately. For the last few years unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been associated either with military strikes or expensive toys. Now they’re promising to bring benefits to farmers.
What does an agricultural drone do?
UAVs can be used to survey crops at much lower cost than traditional satellite imaging. They can tell a farmer which areas are ripe for harvest, where a parasite outbreak is occurring or if particular sites need more fertiliser, pesticide or water.
Drones offer a level of detailed overview that can’t be achieved by satellite or manual inspection. Flying above fields using GPS navigation, their undersides are fitted with many sensors which transmit high-resolution aerial images using multi-spectral cameras. The geo-tagged data is delivered to a computer or device.
Drone data is processed into a treatment recommendation, which can be uploaded to a driverless tractor so it can deliver water, fertiliser or pesticide to the place where it is needed.
Agricultural drones are already available in the UK, and major brands are researching their effectiveness. Agrovista has been working with Ursula Agriculture’s Scout surveillance system to monitor crops at two sites. One test was able to accurately count blackgrass heads in different parts of a field after various chemical applications.
How much do UAVs cost and do I need a licence?
All this technology might sound expensive, but prices have been dropping sharply in recent years, putting drones within the realms of affordability; they can be purchased for around £10,000 – £50,000, or hired for £1,000 per day. Hiring or purchasing through a cooperative can be a better option, as many models have a shelf life of only around three years, plus maintenance costs.
As a new area, drone regulation is still under development, but the UK’s approach has been recognised as leading the way. Under Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules, drones up to 20kg can be flown up to 122m upwards on a 500m radius of the operator, so long as it remains within the line of sight. Most farmers would be able to operate a drone within these rules.
If you wanted to buy a UAV as a commercial investment, providing a scanning service for other farmers, you’d need to be qualified and approved by the CAA. Industry experts say this approach is likely to be adopted across Europe. In the US, rules are much more restrictive and commercial use of drones is banned; farmers have to purchase their own UAV, register it and learn how to operate it.
Japan, on the other hand, has been using agricultural UAVs since the 1990s. Around 40% of Japanese rice fields are now sprayed with herbicide and fertiliser by unmanned helicopters. The Japanese claim UAVs improve crop yield by up to 40%.
What are the downsides of UAVs?
While drone technology offers a host of benefits to farmers, it’s not without risks. Like any technology, drones can malfunction, potentially flying into people, farm animals, tractors, other drones, aircraft or cars. They could smash into pylons and power lines, or crash into hay bales, petrol tanks or buildings. If drones are used for spraying, there’s a chance that harmful chemicals could be end up on people or in neighbouring sites.
There could be privacy issues around using drones near neighbouring housing, or to monitor agricultural workers appropriately. Many rural inhabitants value their peace and privacy and would be fiercely opposed to the use of drones if they believed this would result in surveillance or unwanted noise.
Of course, there’s also always the risk that drones could be misused. They could be used to frighten dairy herds, reducing milk yields. Someone could use a UAV to spray harmful chemicals on farmland, but without any registration system for drones and their remote operation, it would be hard to identify the offender.
Drones, like most technologies, are also liable to hacking, whether to make them malfunction, reveal confidential information or simply for the enjoyment of the hacker.
Insuring against risk
It’s likely that as agricultural drones become more and more common, insurance companies will begin to provide cover for the specific risks associated with them. If criminal activity using drones becomes a major problem, there’s likely to be progress in forensic sciences to detect the operator of any given drone.
Insurance companies are already using UAVs to help loss adjusters assess claims; for example, by surveying a field of crops damaged by hail. With a trend towards larger farms, this is a smart use of resource to provide rapid assessment of damage.
Are you planning to invest in an agricultural drone? How will you protect yourself against the risks
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