Drones - Agri-EPI Centre - Engineering Precision Innovation

Drones

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones take pictures and videos from the air. Combined with emerging camera technology, drones now form an established and growing part of modern agriculture.Agri-EPI explores and delivers precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in the UK agriculture across soil, crops and livestock. Find out more about drones and how they are being used to support better farming in the UK and around the world today.

Agri-EPI explores drone technology for precision spraying

Use of drone technology in precision agriculture has gained popularity in recent years, however there are still legislative barriers preventing widespread adoption, something which Agri-EPI explored in a recent webinar. Currently drones can be used for surveying, mapping, crop monitoring and disease detection. But advances in technology mean autonomous crop pesticide applications could be a reality – if the regulations keep up.

“Precision technology can tackle key agricultural challenges – using variable rate and precise application can reduce spray use and improve yields,” explained Hannah Tew, ecosystem director at Connected Places Catapult.

From a health and safety aspect, there are some benefits too.

“There are huge opportunities in accessibility to remove potential risks,” said James Thomas, sustainable and responsible business manager EAME at Syngenta. “For example, in Asia using drones removes the need for someone to be knee deep in water in a rice field or someone spraying a steep vineyard.”

However, in the UK the Sustainable Use Directive 14 forbids aerial spraying, including the use of drones, although there is a derogation available through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). And there are questions on the efficacy of application.

“Comparing a mist blower and a drone for controlling powdery mildew in grapes, the conventional sprayer came out much better due to the lack of drift,” said Mr Thomas.

But drone technology is advancing all the time.

“We’re heading into the fourth agricultural revolution and things are changing rapidly, but chemicals will still be around for a while,” added Bryn Bircher, policy officer at HSE. “There is the issue of drift; we know there is a lot of drift with a boom sprayer but we don’t know the effect of drift from drones yet.”

And some drones do boast an impressive time saving.

“A drone with a 20-litre tank can cover 15 hectares an hour,” explained Robert Pearson at Auto Spray Solutions.

It’s important to remember that drones are not replacing conventional systems.

“People will only use the drone if it’s better for the job than the conventional way,” added Jack Wrangham at Drone Ag.

And it’s not just spraying which drones could be useful for, they could be used for mapping, applying solid fertiliser, seeds and slug pellets.

“Farmers could get field reports in minutes, just from flying a drone across the field – close up imagery can be used for crop uniformity and accessing the severity of weed patches,” said Mr Wrangham. “This could inform variable rate applications, so chemicals are only applied where necessary.”

Regulatory challenges aside, the HSE is working alongside the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish what can be done to make drone operations safe.

“It is possible to apply for a permit, which will be unique to each business,” said Mr Bircher. “We want to support new tech and I hope we can do so, with the existing legislation.”

 

UK farmers confident about benefits of agri-tech but unsure of its role in net zero, new research suggests

While most UK farmers are using agri-tech, many are doubtful of its ability to help them meet net zero targets, a nationwide survey by Agri-EPI Centre has revealed.

The Agri-EPI research sought to understand how and why farmers are using agri-tech, shed light on barriers to its use and explore the technologies farmers think will be needed in the future.

The research, conducted through interviews with farmers across the UK, found that 78% are using some form of agri-tech, with the highest adoption rates among younger farmers and those with large farms. The biggest reasons for its use are increased productivity and profitability.

Yet, while the same percentage (78%) of farmers believe that it is important to reduce their farm’s greenhouse gas emissions (rising to 94% of those under the age of 45), only just above a third (35%) are confident that technology will help them reach net zero carbon emissions.

One reason for this could be that farmers need greater skills and support to understand the benefits of technology and to adopt it. The research found only half of farmers rate their skills in using agri-tech as ‘good’, with less than half (43%) of all farmers interviewed feeling well supported in introducing or making better use of existing technology.

Agri-EPI centre’s Chief Executive, David Ross, said: “While the majority of UK farmers recognise that agri-tech has an important role in supporting their priorities of productivity and profit, we are struck by the fact that only around a third felt tech has a role to play in environmental sustainability.

“Technology is one of the solutions to helping farmers reduce their emissions –agri-tech that helps farmers be more efficient and productive usually offers a win-win for sustainability.

“The findings of our research provide important insights for Agri-EPI and our fellow Agri-Tech Centres, as well as for those with a role in developing, evaluating and promoting technology, particularly the agri-food sector, policy makers, agri-tech companies and the R&D community. The farmers we spoke to told us they need accessible training, funding, and more evidence and independent advice to help them make the best use of agri-tech. We want to collaborate with partners across all of areas to ensure the benefits of agri-tech is make clear and the avenues to adoption are easily accessible.”

Of the farmers interviewed who are using agri-tech, popular technologies include machine guidance systems (40% reported they are using this), soil mapping (35%), livestock growth monitoring (30%) and variable rate application (28%).

Robotics and automation for a variety of purposes featured strongly in farmers’ thoughts on the tech that will be important for the future, along with the capability to integrate data gathered by different systems on the farm.

Robotics and automation for a variety of purposes featured strongly in farmers’ thoughts on the tech that will be important for the future, along with the capability to integrate data gathered by different systems on the farm. The findings of the research will be discussed at Agri-EPI’s annual conference, titled The Path to Sustainability, on 28 October.

Defra opens its Farming Innovation Partnership competitions – how can we support your application?

This week, Defra opens its Farming Innovation Partnerships Feasibility and Small R&D competition strands. With just six weeks to go until the closing date, we want to ensure we are best able to support our members build their project collaborations and funding applications.

We have identified a number of challenge themes, in consultation with our farmer network, which we will use to guide our thinking in supporting and developing projects. These are:

Create tools to track and manage environmental impact
Improve data exchange to track productivity and impact
Develop higher resolution farm management information
Automate processes for creating management information
Automate processes for targeted actions
Improve health and welfare of plants and animals

Agri-EPI can provide access to our farmer network, testbeds and other facilities; help with building up your project and consortium; technical and project management expertise; or support with writing an application, as appropriate.
If you are considering applying to these competitions and would like support from Agri-EPI or to find out how we can help, please complete this form, with as much information as possible. This will help us best understand how we can help and where we can add value. If your idea is still quite early-stage and you don’t have all the information, or if you are looking to join a collaboration that fits into one or more of the themes above, just send us what you have. We will then direct your enquiry to the member of our team best able to advise how to take your idea further.

Your information will be dealt with in confidence and we won’t approach any additional partners without consulting you first.

Please get back to us by 29th October at the latest, but the sooner we hear from you, the better position we will be in to provide support.

A winning solution for autonomous farming safety 

Agri-tech company Agribot AI has won the Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm (HFF) hackathon tackling safety and security concerns around autonomous agricultural vehicles.  

A hackathon funded by Smart Agri-Hubs, Agri-EPI Centre in collaboration with Hands Free Farm tasked participants to “hack” a safety solution for unmanned machinery.  The teams which took part came from a range of disciplines, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things, drones and computer vision. 

Agribot’s winning concept brought together cutting-edge AI and vision technology to provide a cost-effective, anonymised human and animal detection system that could work with notoriously patchy rural connectivity. The company is now in conversation with the Hands Free Farm team on developing and implementing their technology on the HFF site.

Agribot were joined by five other teams that included Epitomical Limited, Continental Industry, NextGenAgri Limited, GMV NSL, MNB Networks Ltd

Agri-EPI Chief Executive Dave Ross said: “The quality of ideas and solutions from the teams that took part in the hackathon has blown away everyone at Agri-EPI, the team at Hands Free Farm and our judges – Clive Blacker, Kit Franklin, Andy Newbold and Sarah Walton. We were particularly impressed with Agribot AI’s proposal which has very real potential, and we are excited to see how it develops at Hands Free Farm.” 

Autonomous vehicles offer arable farmers a wide range of benefits, such as better utilisation of farm staff and increased precision and reduced inputs, all of which combine to improve farm economics. 

However, to ensure the implementation of agri-tech can keep pace with the rate of innovation, the safety, security and reliability of new technologies must be guaranteed. 

The lack of formal safety regulations, codes of practice and other legislation pose a potential barrier to the widespread use of cutting-edge agri-tech, hindering the progress of the entire agri-food sector. 

Hands Free Farm partners with Precision Decisions, part of the Map of Ag group. Clive Blacker, Head of Arable Produce at Map of Ag said:  

“The diverse nature of agriculture and robotics operating in off-road and on-road environments poses many challenges. Our aim with the hackathon was to bring great ideas from any background into agriculture that have the potential to support robotic safety. We have been delighted and inspired by the solutions put forward.”  

 

A Dark Horse on the crop sensing scene?

An Agri-EPI-supported trial of a new crop monitoring service has delivered promising results for Niall Jeffrey of Bielgrange Farm in East Lothian, Scotland.

Bielgrange comprises 350Ha of lowland arable land and 240Ha of hill with a beef herd running between both. As part of Agri-EPI’s Satellite Farm programme, Niall is helping develop and evaluate Dark Horse Technologies’ service, which uses satellite and drones to monitor crops, diagnose growth problems and predict yield.

Dark Horse’s prediction of yield from Niall’s field of second winter wheat was accurate to within less than 0.5% – and they did it without setting foot on his farm.

Niall said:

“We chose a difficult field for the trial where the crop was poorly established. The open canopy enabled weeds to establish which we could not treat without damaging the crop. Dark Horse remotely programmed a drone mission. All I had to do was go to the field and press start then, when it finished the mission, upload the memory card online to Dark Horse. We initially predicted a yield of around 8 tonnes and revised this throughout the growing season as Dark Horse showed us how things were progressing.

Dark Horse’s ultimate prediction – made three weeks before harvest– was 6.4 T/ha and the actual result was 6.43 T/ha. Going forward, the prediction could help me with the management of harvest storage and forward selling. We were impressed with the accuracy of the results. I’m intrigued to see what else it can do.”

Dark Horse Technologies promotes its service as being different from other forms of crop analysis because it goes beyond pure spectral analysis and incorporates specific spatial and temporal analysis of the crops.

Jared Bainbridge, Founder and Chief Executive of Dark Horse Technologies said:

“What we were able to achieve with Niall is a great example of our service. Feature analysis allows us to monitor the geometric growth trajectory of each plant in the field over time. We can gauge each individual plant’s performance to understand the ideal size and shape of a crop at any point in its life cycle and can benchmark each plant’s performance.

Our service is designed so that it can be delivered with factory issued drones you can buy off-the-shelf. We’re not a drone company but an advanced crop imaging company. We are capable of combining multiple sources of data and imagery such as satellite, drone, mobile, sensor and ground-truth data; into a proprietary model capable of predicting yield and mapping crop-loss events with a high degree of accuracy. We are also able to integrate with existing on-farm machines to ensure sprayers target the areas of the field which need the most help, saving time and money.”

Niall and Dark Horse and now preparing for more trials, including a field scale seed treatment trial and the measurement of grass output from a paddock grazing system for cattle next summer.

Gavin Dick, Agri-EPI’s Head of Farms said:

“This kind of trial is what our satellite farm network is all about: bringing together farmers with the developers of next generation technologies and techniques to develop and evaluate new ways of supporting producers’ efficiency and productivity.”