Drones For Agriculture: will the COVID-19 crisis accelerate drone use in harvesting?
Britain is facing a growing problem of finding labourers to pick its fruit and vegetables. As the UK government calls on the population to help with the 2020 harvest, amidst the Coronavirus crisis, drones for agriculture may hold the answer for the future of picking seasons.
We may live in exceptional times. The COVID19 pandemic has changed the landscape of the UK, perhaps forever. But the outbreak has simply compounded the problems that farmers have experienced in hiring labour in recent years. A huge infrastructure of growers, workers and logistical operations supply the nation with the fruit and veg that we all take for granted on the shelves of our greengrocers and supermarkets.
As the age of agricultural robots takes pace, until now drones have largely been used for crop surveying, management and dusting alongside a growing application in livestock monitoring.
But with the shortage of farmhands only set to increase in the post-coronavirus, post-Brexit fields of Britain, rapid advances in drone technology mean that an army of automated flying machines could be the future of assisting and performing the labour-intensive task of bringing in the annual harvest.
In this blog you will learn;
- How drones are used in the agricultural circle
- Potential uses for drones in agriculture
- Current uses for drones in agriculture
- The future of drones in agriculture
If you would like to talk to one of our advisors about adopting drones into your farming business contact us here.
Calls for the mobilisation of a 2020 'land army'
Wartime rhetoric has been a feature of the challenges facing the UK as it continues to face its biggest test since WWII. From reimagining the “blitz spirit” to unprecedented emergency government powers, to hailing our “frontline heroes” to remembering the “fallen”. The media has been awash with metaphors from the battlefield as the world seeks to defeat the "invisible enemy" that is coronavirus.
And that theme has proliferated as the annual fruit and veg picking season is upon us. “Pick for Britain” has become a government campaign and even Prince Charles has called for an “army of people” to work the land to ensure crops are picked and not wasted. A new “land army” is required, as the Prince of Wales called it.
But will the day come when the heir to the throne hails the emergence of an “army in the air”? One which can be called up to pick fruit, veg and crops in the orchards, fruit fields, farms and greenhouses of the UK? Perhaps so.
UAVs in the agricultural cycle
Agriculture has for a while been one of the sectors which is predicted to adopt and benefit most from the use of drones and the continued pace by which UAVs and associated applications are developing.
The versatility of drones, particularly those manufactured by the likes of DJI and Parrot, has seen the emergence of a sub-industry developing hardware and software to complement them. An assortment of companies around the world provide innovative solutions with hybrid and bespoke applications for agricultural tasks.
UAVs are now routinely used by farmers around the globe to perform soil analysis, assess crop health, monitor irrigation systems and spray crops. Current developments are going further and include wide-scale testing of drone planting systems.
Researchers from Belgian university, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, have even been working with remote sensing company Vito to use drones to count flowers in fruit orchards. Estimating flower numbers from a random sample of trees enables growers to monitor the progress and potential yield of each year’s crop. Data captured can inform decisions on plant management, for example strategies to thin out plants to promote growth. But this task is time-intensive and somewhat inaccurate when carried out by a human eye looking up into the branches. The research team used a DJI Phantom 4 fitted with an image processing solution to map orchards in 2D and 3D. The results demonstrated that a drone can perform this routine task with much greater speed, on a greater sample size, and with more accuracy than a human.
But there remains a huge step in the agricultural cycle still to be exploited. Drones are already used to monitor soil conditions, sow, grow, water and treat crops. The next significant leap, to utilise drones further on in the cycle, and one which will surely reap huge rewards, is the development and adoption of UAVs to harvest grains, fruit and vegetables while also returning data all the way through the cycle.
The final element of the farming cycle - the packing, storage and delivery of produce - is also an area in development. If a drone can one day deliver your Amazon order or your takeaway, then why not punnets of strawberries or crates of grapes to food processing plants and wholesalers? This may be the final piece of the food production puzzle and is one which could benefit from UAV applications. But that may be a debate for another day.
Drones for agriculture: How drones can be used to harvest and pick crops
It’s now back in 2017 that the New Yorker reported on the world’s first successful use of robots, including UAVs, to “grow, tend, and harvest a crop without direct human intervention.” And while the sowing, spraying and testing in the pilot project was carried out by drones, the crucial harvest activity was still undertaken by a driverless tractor.
The large acreage on which crops such as wheat and barley are grown may mean an autonomous land-based machine will always be the better option for the future of such harvesting. This type of activity is already light on the labour required. Even now, you just need someone to sit on the tractor or harvester. And in the future this could be done by an autonomous ground machine.
But picking fruit and veg largely requires the use of people and their human hands. And it needs lots of hands. Collecting fruit hanging from bushes and trees is particularly labour-intensive and for centuries each year farms have employed hundreds of fruit pickers.
To be deployed to pick fruit, a drone requires some sort of mechanical claw to take from the plants and trees one-by-one. It may sound simple but of course it isn’t. Robotic technology to replicate the intricacies of the human hand has tested engineers for years. It isn't that long since the development of a robot who could catch a ball was hailed as a major breakthrough.
It's also true that softer fruits can easily be squashed or bruised by a robotised hand. An intelligent system is required to identify fruit ready for picking according to size, colour and ripeness. And different types of fruit require different types of grabbers. There's a big difference between a banana and a blueberry after all.
While lower-growing and softer fruits like strawberries and raspberries may require something different - for now - drones can be used effectively to harvest harder fruits like apples, peaches, pears and oranges. Leafy vegetables can also be torn easily and would require a highly precise piece of robotic engineering or UAV fitted with the gentlest of mechanical touches to lift them from the ground.
Is anyone actually picking anything with a drone yet?
The tech for using a fleet of drones to actually pick fruit and veg is still in its infant stage. But there are some pioneering projects already underway.
Israeli start-up Tevel made headlines in the tech world in 2019. The still-small firm emerged as one company developing and manufacturing UAVs that can be deployed to not only pick fruit but also to prune and thin trees in orchards.
Using tailored artificial intelligence along with intricate drone balancing and manoeuvering tech to navigate an orchard, Tevel’s prototypes rely on perception algorithms, sensors and mechanical grips to take apples one by one from the trees and drop them into a basket on the ground.
And they plan to move on from apples. Tevel have already filed a patent for its drone picking technology. The purpose stated is for use in “orchards, plantations and greenhouses, such as apple, pear, apricot, peach, orange, small citrus fruit, and lemon-trees, avocado, vines, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and peppers.”
In New Zealand, Newton Research Labs have been working on a variety of autonomous fruit picking robots, including airborne pickers. The aim, they say is to have “fruit picking drones whizzing through orchards day and night”. So far, fittingly the focus has been on picking kiwi fruits.
But do consumers really want “mechanically hand-picked” produce?
We all know that robots and drones still instil a little sci-fi inspired cynicism both in the media and in public reaction as their presence in business and daily life continues to grow.
Coupled with that, there are a plethora of marketing tags applied to the products we all buy and consume. Such slogans aim to make foodstuffs in particular somehow more “wholesome”, “traditional” or “worthy” than others.
“Home baked”, “Home made”, “Farm reared” - the list goes on. Should drones become commonplace in the greenhouses, fields and orchards, it is worth pondering if we will see a consumer reluctance to buy “mechanically picked” fruit and veg instead of the traditional “hand picked” variety.
High street spicy chicken chain Nandos certainly thought so a couple of years ago. In what was probably a marketing wheeze to demonstrate that its chillies are indeed handpicked by attentive labourers (presumably those with an expert eye for what makes the perfect produce to go into a peri-peri sauce), the company publicised a somewhat slapstick experiment (carried out by its “drone guy”) to pick chillies using a UAV. The non-commercial looking drone was fitted with what resembles a grabber taken from a kid’s toy. And it couldn't pick a chilli. And then crashed.
Not the most high-tech attempt, nor did the apparent stunt add much to the debate on drone use in agriculture, but the video does demonstrate neatly that marketers will probably still like us to value “hand picked” over “robot picked”.
Maybe we always will. But maybe we won’t. Perhaps the reports of rotting, wasted fruit and veg in the orchards, fruiteries and grow houses of the UK this summer, along with warnings of shortages and price hikes, will accelerate the public acceptance of technology, robotics and drones in harvesting our fruit and veg.
What next for drones in crop, fruit and veg harvesting?
The “army of people” that the government and Prince of Wales have called for to take to the fields may materialise this summer. But all indicators suggest the labour market for fruit and veg harvesting is shrinking, and shrinking fast. And not just in post-Brexit Britain.
There may be huge uncertainty over the UK’s future access to EU workers to work in the agricultural sector, but this is a global phenomenon and it isn’t new. In the misty recent past of pre-coronavirus Britain, and even before the Brexit vote was cast, in 2016 43 percent of fruit producers were already predicting a shortage of seasonal workers.
Moves to tighten global trade barriers, a lower mobility of people during lockdowns and into the future in the post-COVID19 world, panic buying, food waste, and any number of other factors will compound these issues.
Drones are demonstrating their worth throughout the early stages of the agricultural growing cycle. Analysing soil, assessing the patterns of ploughing, mass sowing and planting, monitoring propagation, identifying disease and plant health, estimating yields and providing data on every aspect of plant husbandry is revolutionising farming.
The development and deployment of UAVs which can support and perform the tasks of harvesting and picking still has a long way to go. And the tech may still be the preserve of academic pilot projects and niche manufacturers.
But it’s not that long since drone giant DJI launched its first focused agricultural model, the Agras MG-1.
And Parrot has also been busy working with partners to deliver UAV solutions to the agricultural sector. The Parrot Bluegrass was designed with farmers and crop analysis in mind and launched in 2017. It also looks like an X-Wing Fighter from Star Wars as an added bonus! The first time we happened across Luke Skywalker in the original film he was fittingly being raised on a farm on a planet far far away after all.
But once the capabilities of drones to perform harvesting functions advance, and when they can demonstrate mass cost-saving potential, and when they can truly provide a solution to the workforce issues facing farmers, then the day will come when unmanned vehicles will be flying high up the apples and pears to pick, prune and pack the nation's five a day.
If this blog has inspired you to consider adopting drones into your farming business speak to one of our expert advisors here.