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.

International collaboration in agri-tech

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Manager, Duncan Ross, spoke at The Argentinian Embassy in London along with Agri-EPI Centre members: Ian Beecher-Jones from JoJo’s Vineyard, Marc Jones, Business Director at Antobot, and Emil Endres, Operations Engineer from Outfield Technologies, as part of the dissemination activity from the two Viticulture projects funded by Innovate UK and EIT Food.  They demonstrated the use of drone and robotic technology and the potential benefits to the viticulture sector to a delegation of visitors from the wine growing Mendoza region of Argentina, and the wider British Argentinian Chamber of Commerce. Agri-EPI’s Communications Officer, Tatiana Boyle, supported with the Spanish translation for the tech in viticulture video shown to the delegation.

This visit follows a trip to Argentina by Duncan and Agri-EPI’s Head of Crops, Claire Hodge, where they attended workshops related to the current state of UK Agri-Tech, and a conference on biofilms near Cordoba. They then travelled to Rosario to meet with numerous Agri-Tech businesses in the area to gain an understanding of Argentinian Agri-Tech, before finally visiting “Glimax” a company that researches and validates Agri-Tech from all parts of the globe to make tech adoption recommendations to their farmer clients in the agronomy side of their business.

Duncan said:

“This was a fantastic opportunity facilitated by the Department of International Trade, to build on the links we are developing with Argentinian contacts both in the UK and in country. I envisage future opportunities for Argentinian Agri-Tech companies to use Agri-EPI Centre hubs as landing pads, and for UK Agri-Tech companies to explore opportunities abroad.”

 

         

On-farm conference provides unique discussions around sustainability in farming

 

Sustainability, technology, and innovation in farming were the focus of Agri-EPI Centre’s Annual Conference last month at Shimpling Park Farm in Suffolk. The event brought together over 100 guests from across the agriculture sector, from farmers and growers to tech developers, academics, and other sector representatives, for a day of discussions and networking.

The day, entitled ‘The path to sustainable farming continued: the role of precision technology’, began with introductions from host and farmer, John Pawsey, Agri-EPI’s CEO Dave Ross, and journalist and conference chair, Anna Jones.

Dave Ross said:

“It’s a relief to get back in person. There’s nothing better than actually meeting people face to face to have networking discussions, discuss the problems that are topical, and think about solutions to those problems.”

Fabia Bromovsky, Director of the Global Farm Metric at the Sustainable Food Trust took the floor as the conference’s keynote speaker to discuss the question: what exactly is sustainable farming? She explained that we lacked a common understanding and that where definitions exist, they often overlooked the interconnectedness and diversity of our farm systems.   She set out the need for a common language, a framework that recognises this holistic system and identifies where impact occurs.

She acknowledged the important role of technology to support farmers with this.  Farmers already collect lots of data, but with a consistent set of measures, in-common to all farm assessments, technology can provide solutions that make it easier to collect. Technology can enable farmers to protect their data, share data between consenting users, improve performance, and reduce time and costs.

She maintained the power of a common framework is it would provide a consistent baseline of data, the DNA of the farm, that can underpin supply chain transparency, green investment, and food labelling.  Governments, markets, and the financial sector can then reward producers who are delivering genuine benefit to the environment and public health and shift the balance of financial advantage towards more sustainable systems.

The farmer speakers were up next, with a panel made up of four of Agri-EPI’s innovation farmers, including Sophie Alexander from Hemsworth Farm, Jo Franklin from Kaiapoi Farm, John Pawsey from Shimpling Park Farm, and Ian Beecher-Jones from JoJo’s Vineyard.

They discussed the challenges within the agriculture sector including resilience to weather events, net zero goals, and price volatility, and how uncertainty in policy can affect the ability for some farmers to innovate as much as they would like to. Other topics discussed included how sustainability is inextricably linked to profitability, the need for a business mindset as a farmer, and the methods the farmers use to progress towards their sustainability goals.

The tech panel included developers Howard Wu from Antobot, Jack Wrangham from DroneAg, Jim Wilson from SoilEssentials, and James Brown from Earth Rover. Their discussions centred around how to make technology accessible to farmers, how to better understand farmers’ priorities for innovation, and how to attract more youth to agriculture with the use of technology.

Lastly, bridging the gap between the farmers and the tech developers, the final speaker panel included Calum Murray, Head of Agriculture & Food at Innovate UK and Agri-EPI speakers including CEO, Dave Ross, CTO, Trisha Toop, and Head of Engineering, Eliot Dixon.

Calum Murray explained:

“What we do at Innovate UK is try to make things happen that wouldn’t normally go ahead. First and foremost, we have to understand what the challenges are. We need to identify those areas that will deliver the greatest impact and give us value for money and give value to the UK economy”.

Dave Ross said:

“We are in an industry that has huge challenges and huge opportunities.”

The speaker sessions were followed by a networking lunch and farm tour around Shimpling Park Farm headed by John Pawsey.

John explained:

“We’ve been using the Skippy Scout Drone. There’s a huge amount to be looking at and I have to say, huge thanks to Agri-EPI and to Skippy Scout, because even though we can actually physically go out and look at all those things ourselves, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to go out and get that data, if you have a drone that can go out and get it for you, then why wouldn’t you do that?”

Guests were thrilled to be back in person discussing sustainability within the food supply chain, agri-tech solutions, and innovation in farming.

Ian Beecher-Jones said:

“I think today was very much about the grower, very much about the farmer.”

Calum Murray said:

“It’s been terrific to get back on farm and hear first-hand exactly what farm businesses are having to face.”

Agri-EPI Centre is the UK’s leading centre for precision innovation in farming. They help to deliver profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farms and specialise in connecting knowledgeable experts and new solutions across the agricultural sectors.

Get in touch about opportunities at team@agri-epicentre.com

Hyperspectral UAV

Agri-EPI Centre has invested in the Hyperspectral UAV.

Compared to multispectral imagery, hyperspectral imagery measures energy in narrower and more numerous bands, thus giving much more information on target. Hyperspectral image data is 3D cube, where each pixel holds a full spectrum across the range. Since spectra are as unique as ‘fingerprints’ to target, hyperspectral imagery can unveil features that multispectral imagery may miss out on.

Hyperspectral imaging technology has been under research for decades and has been demonstrated to be very powerful in many application areas including agriculture. Especially in recent years, with a more robust and rugged imaging product embedded onto the UAV platform, agri-tech has seen revolutionary improvements.

The HySpex turnkey UAV solution with Mjolnir VS-620 and Lidar includes all the necessary hardware and software for flight planning, data collection, data processing and calibration. The system is provided with a UAV platform, 3-axis gimbal mount for the hyperspectral unit with Lidar and corresponding spectral calibration, radiometric calibration and geometric calibration. The geometric calibration includes a sensor model for VNIR and SWIR hyperspectral sensor heads, subpixel co-alignment of the 2 sensor heads, boresight calibration of the 2 sensor heads and internal IMU system, boresight calibration of the Lidar unit and internal IMU system.

There’s a broad application potential, including assisting in the development of products in the following application areas:
• Drought/water/nutrient stress monitoring
• Plant pathogens detection
• Analysis of soil properties/Determination of soil types
• Land mapping
• Yield forecasting
• Land management

UAV System (XQ-1400S BFD HySpex Edition):
1. <25 kg MTOW with Mjolnir and gimbal
2. Up to 25 min flight endurance with 8 kg payload
3. Fitted with high performance GNSS/GPS and IMU to enable data to be captured to high geolocation accuracy
4. Fitted with advanced 3-axis digital gimbal to compensate for the pitching

Sensing System (HySpex Mjolnir VS-620, Velodyne VLP-32C) :
1. Fully-integrated co-aligned hyperspectral visible and near-infrared (VNIR) and short-wave infrared (SWIR) (400 – 2500nm) and LiDAR sensors, along with in-flight data capture and storage system
2. Spectral coverage of 400 – 2500 nm, with spectral resolution of 3 nm in VNIR and 5.1 nm over SWIR range. Bit resolution 12bit in VNIR and 16 bit in SWIR.
3. Double resolution data in the VNIR range
4. High-resolution (0.33 degree) LiDAR sensor, with 360° surround view with real-time 3D data

They Hyperspectral UAV has potential use as groundtruth technology for other technologies/systems as well.

For information on renting out our technical assets please contact team@agri-epicentre.com

Multi-sensor VTOL UAV

Agri-tech has undergone tremendous improvements with the introduction of remote sensing technologies, making many agricultural properties that were difficult to achieve before now accessible.

Multi-Spectral imaging has been widely used on satellites (e.g. Landsat) for earth observation science at a global scale. In the agricultural domain, UAVs as a platform have played a major role utilising various payload sensors including multi-spectral imaging.

The advantage of multi-spectral imaging is that it extends human sight sensitivity beyond the visible spectrum. Some wavelengths that are widely recognised for applications, such as the normalised difference vegetative index (NDVI), can be deployed into multi-spectral imaging. Nonetheless, it has been proved to be very useful in many other fields, greatly empowering the advancement of agriculture. The adoption of UAVs has made it possible to achieve large-scale mapping and thus better agricultural management.

Agri-EPI Centre has invested in the Multi-spectral VTOL UAV which has a potential use as ground truth technology for other technologies and/or systems.

This UAV and sensing payload system can also be used for a variety of fruit orchard use-cases which include:
• Estimation of leaf area index
• Estimation of canopy volume
• Estimation of water stress
• Fruit biomass estimation
• Temperature variation across the orchard
• Temperature variation of specific plants over time
• Fruit count estimation

It can also be used in other agricultural areas which include:
• Pest infestation detection
• Quantity moisture levels
• Analyse wildlife damage
• Vegetation index creation like NDVI
• Crop counting
• Create 3D photogrammetry maps

For information on renting out our technical assets please contact team@agri-epicentre.com.

Drone use in UK agriculture

By: Claire Hodge, Head of Crops at Agri-EPI Centre

Agricultural drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are set to disrupt the agriculture industry owing to their immense potential to make agriculture more efficient, precise, and productive, driving the economic case for drone use. With farmers grappling with mounting pressure to boost production while adapting to climate change and dealing with increasing costs of production and changing support frameworks, drones present a compelling solution to improve the efficiency of the entire farming enterprise.

Growers and their advisors can exploit the technology for data collection to identify stressed areas of crops, study and map farmland, and improve irrigation efficiency. In addition to spraying water, fertilisers or pesticides on crops, drones can be used for livestock monitoring and tracking animal population and health.

Increased efficiency will drive the economic case for drone use. Drones can cover large areas of land, quickly and efficiently, provide quick and low-cost farm-related data to assist in effective decision making, and improve yield estimations, helping growers efficiently plan for storage, labour, farm resources, and transportation requirements with more certainty about the quality and quantity of the fruit crop being produced. Drones provide a higher level of accuracy, potentially reducing the frequency and quantity of agrochemicals used.

Labour shortages are a big challenge with the changing roles on farm, and through automation, drones allow labour to be redeployed to other farm operations. Making these jobs safer by reducing exposure to chemicals using drones to spray crops means that fewer staff will be exposed to chemicals compared to manual spraying.

The environmental impact of food production is under scrutiny and drones can help farmers reduce food waste by improving crop quality, reducing inputs and lowering CO2 emissions. The addition of drones in fields should also reduce the travel of heavy equipment going through the field on such a regular basis.

Precision agriculture practices, which can help farmers make better-informed decisions, have evolved significantly over recent years, with the global market now estimated to reach $43.4 billion by 2025. While drones have not yet made it into the mainstream agriculture space, they are playing an increasingly important role in precision farming, helping agriculture professionals lead the way with sustainable farming practices, while also protecting and increasing profitability.

The demand for agriculture drone services is consistently growing around the world, particularly Asia, South America, and Australia. Drone service providers are offering advanced solutions with improved quality and in-depth analysis, spurring service adoption. The demand for agriculture drones for mapping and spraying is substantially growing among the services, in areas of extensive production, remote locations, and low populations where access is difficult.

The landscape in the UK certainly differs to that of extensive cropping systems with many UK farmers working close to highly populated areas and with that comes a different set of risk factors to overcome.

Working closely with farmers across the Agri-EPI network and setting up a suite of drone capabilities we understand the true industry needs and the current limiting factors. Farmers want more robust and detailed crop data that will inform their decision making, however regulatory limiting factors for flying drones on farms, skills required to operate drones, and time involved are all concerns that need to be overcome to see this technology gain widespread adoption.

Working at Agri-EPI gives me the opportunity to work with farmers, regulators, and technology developers to overcome these challenges helping create innovative solutions for on-farm drone deployment.

Within the Agri-EPI network we are working with the top fruit industry, to use cutting-edge drone and machine learning technologies to provide growers with detailed crop insights, using drones with multi-spectral, hyper-spectral or lidar sensors with the aim to increase productive yield from an orchard by 10%.

To overcome the need for training on farm we are working with companies who can deliver ‘drone in a box’ systems where the drone arrives on farm ready to use, designed specifically for the farm needs. Drone in a box service that will allow a grower to remotely trigger a pre-planned drone flight will increase adoption rates.

There are also advantages to the use of BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) flights where one drone and operator can cover much larger areas in a shorter time, something which can be done cost-effectively by a service provider. Current Visual Line of Site VLOS operations are only within 500m. BVLOS (Beyond VLOS) allow the operator to be in an entirely different place to the drone and allow them to cover the last areas without having people on the ground to monitor.

There is ongoing work with HSE and the wider industry to start to answer some of the questions in Spray drone technology in order to implement greater safety measures and improved accuracy. This will allow areas that need low volumes of spray to be targeted and will allow for advantages when traveling across the ground is difficult or remote.

Drone technology is not a solo technology to overcome all on-farm challenges, but part of an integrated solution complimenting satellite and robotic technology and existing farm practice – allowing farmers to pick applications that work for their business.

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.”