Drones in Agriculture: Is now the time to adopt the technology?

Last updated on

August 20, 2020


Drones in Agriculture: 3 innovative use cases

In our latest post on drones in agriculture we’ll run through:

  • The challenges the agriculture sector face in adopting drone technology
  • The barriers to adoption that need to be overcome
  • How drones can be used to improve the agriculture sector
  • How drones were used to help UK farmers avoid £100 million of rapeseed oil losses each year
  • How drones were used to save a bee species in Columbia
  • How drones were used to release predatory wasps in Australia to protect crops

If you’re interested in adopting drone technology into your business or operations, then our team of industry experts will make sure you get the right solution to match your needs.  You can get in touch with us here.

The use of drones in agriculture is a rapidly growing area of development – and for good reason. Given the vast land area agriculture requires, along with sensitive or challenging environments, increased drone use could revolutionise the agricultural sector.

The scope for drone use in agriculture is varied. The EU commission identified several potential areas for drone use, including soil and field analysis, crop monitoring, health assessment, irrigation, crop spraying and aerial planting. However, as with any drone-based projects, there are significant challenges to be overcome before drone use can become routine and widespread.

The financial benefits of drone use for farmers must be clear, as many are already facing significant economic challenges and may not have the upfront investment required to make the most of drones – even where they could experience increased profitability.

Similarly, to fully make the most of any improved processes, farmers may need to modernise. According to a 2017 Survey, 56% of farmers in Europe were aged over 55, and as a result, had limited digital skills and access to technology. Technology and training can come at a high cost, and many farmers may be unwilling or unable to meet this.

Another important part of paving the way for widespread use of drones is, of course, test cases. As more farmers and workers in the agriculture sector begin to use drones, the greater the number of success stories and benefits to the community there are as a whole.

Below we’ll look at three recent use cases of drones in agriculture from across the world and analyse how these uses could be rolled out further across the agriculture industry.

Drones in Agriculture (Case One): Drones used to help UK farmers avoid £100 million of rapeseed oil losses each year

Rapeseed Field

There are many different threats to crops in the UK. However, drones are helping farmers to identify issues and take action earlier. Growers are now using drones to gather data that could help save their crops and as a result, save them millions of pounds each year.

Recently, the latest in drone innovation has helped growers battle a major disease that costs the winter oil rapeseed business up to £100 million each year.

An app has been developed which uses high-resolution images of leaf-levels captured by drones, to identify symptoms of stem canker and Phoma early on. This identification process allows them to take early action and minimise any losses to their harvest.

The app is called ‘Skippy Scout‘ and has been developed by Drone Ag in response to data outlined by Crop Monitor in their annual survey. The survey highlighted that Phoma causes losses of around £100 million every season, even where the crop has been adequately treated with a fungicide.

Founder of Drone AG, Jack Wrangham, stated that it was ‘vital’ growers spotted Phoma in the early stages, he said: “Using Skippy to do so will save money, increase the efficacy of fungicides, and increase yield.”

The cost of the app is minimal, starting at only £30 for a single user. Considering the vast saving farmers could make, this seems like an offer that farmers can’t afford to refuse.

How does it work?

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) provides a forecast of Phoma, which farmers would typically utilise along with walking the crop regularly to maximise the opportunity to catch the disease early. Of course, manual crop walking is time-consuming and utilising drone technology is a major step forward.

Skippy Scout states that it allows farmers to walk more crops in less time as drones will be carrying out much of the work.

Agronomist Robert Ord from agronomy firm McCreath Simpson & Prentice outlined how Skippy Scout could cover crops in greater detail. He said: “The drone can spot problems quickly, which enables me to make the best use of my time.

“With Skippy, I can also save data from points in a field to analyse crop establishment and development at different stages in the growing season.”

Normally, Phoma is treated using two sprays, and drone data can determine when is the optimum time to carry out the treatment.

Mr Ord continues: “It’s about collating data from all available sources and being able to continually monitor the crop for small changes. The most time-efficient way to do this is with a drone.

“It is roughly five times faster to walk a crop using a drone in comparison to traditional methods. If we are going to improve our WOSR yields, we should be making the best use of all the resources available to us.”

Skippy Scout utilises field maps to allow for the automation of drone flights. When farmers upload field maps, they can also choose specific points in the fields for the drone to fly and also to take photos. The advanced technology of the drones is key, as they can take high-resolution photos which are of sufficient detail to allow farmers to identify the early warning signs of Phoma.

Mr Wrangham has stated that the entire process should be simple to use from start to finish; all that is required is a drone and the phone app. He outlined that suitable drones come at a low cost, starting at just £369. Right away, drone users can start to recognise Phoma on leaves at a very early stage, allowing them to make more timely use of fungicides.

Graham Potter, a farmer from Topcliffe Grange near Thirsk, has been using drones for four years now to monitor his crops. Farmers Weekly nicknamed Potter ‘Mr Technology’ as he was one of the first farmers to adopt drone-based crop monitoring. He said: “It’s a great bit of kit that makes life much easier and quicker. If I think there is a problem crop, I can take the drone out and use Skippy to fly to points in the field.”

He went on to describe how the images captured are sent back in real-time, so farmers can see right away what might be affecting the crop and take swift action.

Drones in Agriculture (Case Two): Saving bee species in Columbia

Bees and Drones

It is well documented how important bees are to agriculture and horticulture. However, pesticide use has threatened many species of bees, endangering plants and crop harvest. Columbia is home to hundreds of different species of bees, each with their part to play in the country’s ecosystem. But, many of these species have been greatly impacted by pesticide use, particularly the species that pollinates the lulo fruit – one of Columbia’s most iconic products.

Entomologist Diana Obregon has been working to ascertain the role that pesticides have played in the decline in the species of bees that pollinate the lulo.

Obregon is a PhD student at Cornell University studying entomology and a Fulbright scholar. She said that without the bee population, the production of the lulo fruit (Solanum quitoense) would be compromised by about 51%. The fruit is exceptionally popular across much of Latin America, and as a result, it is vital to determine the impact of pesticides on the bee population. Obregon explained that by using drones, the team were able to characterise the landscape that surrounds the fields, meaning they were able to quantify the forest that remained. The team were then able to correlate the surrounding areas with the level of residual pesticides found in the lulo flowers and the abundance and diversity of bees visiting the crop.

She said: “We discovered very highly toxic pesticides for bees in lulo flowers, and as the pesticide residues increased in the farms, the diversity and abundance of bees drastically decreased.”

However, Obregon and her team discovered that when lulo farms are surrounded by forest in high proportions, the negative effects of pesticides were marginally offset. Obregon outlined the positive buffer impact is lost when the residues get to a certain level. She explained that it is necessary to both protect natural areas of forest, but that pesticide use must also be reduced.

Obregon added: “In the tropics, there is an immense diversity of native bees that must be studied and preserved.

“The results of my research provide information on ecosystems and crop systems which have been less studied, but which are economically relevant for the region.”

Drones in Agriculture (Case Three): Drones used to release predatory wasps in Australia

Drones and Predatory Wasps

Drone-loads of predatory wasps are being used to protect crops in Australia. The wasps are released onto vegetable crops in order to attack pest insects, and the use of drones is helping farmers to speed up the process and protect the environment.

Predatory wasps and other insects are already used routinely by farmers to protect tomato crops and other small crops all across Australia. Parasitic wasps act as biological pest control, where they target other insects such as the Silverleaf whitefly. The use of wasps reduces the need for the use of pesticides and other chemicals which could damage the environment.

Agronomist, Jessica Volken outlines that using predator insects such as wasps is an important part of pest-management in vegetable crops. She said: “The wasps are excellent because not only do they help control the pest, they also take the pressure off our chemicals and hopefully reduce resistance to those chemicals.”

Bowen in North Queensland is often described as the ‘salad bowl’ due to the wide variety of vegetable crops and growers in the area. Now, the growers’ community in Bowen is trialling the use of drones in order to make the practice of releasing predatory wasps more straightforward, reducing costs, labour and the time it takes to release the wasps.

Luke Jurgens, a drone pilot, is working in collaboration with the growers association of Bowen-Gumlu on a trial to release predatory wasps. The wasps will be released from a drone onto tomato fields in the area. Jurgens said: “Prior to drones, the consultants or agronomists would go through with vials with little wasps inside. But with a drone, we’re taking away from people walking through the field.”

Jurgens has been a drone pilot for several years and has always been aware of the potential to use drones for this purpose. He said: “I’ve always believed there was an industry here for it. We’re [now] trying to make a business of it. [Using drones] is faster, [to spread beneficial insects] and you get a good even spread.”

Improved coverage of the crops is essential as it can reduce the biosecurity risk posed by people walking through the fields. Volker saw this as a key benefit of utilising drone technology overusing hand releases. She said: “The big picture is trying to reduce our chemical usage overall, and reduce the negative impacts chemicals have on the environment and particularly the Great Barrier Reef.”

Volker hopes that by creating more efficient ways of releasing parasitic insects, it will inspire an increased number of growers to get involved. Volken is vocal about the benefits of this method for both individual owners and the community. Speaking of the exponential growth in benefits, she said that the more growers that choose to release insects, the greater the potential benefits to all growers in the area.

“If you have the larger growers controlling their pests, then there are fewer pests to go to the neighbours and so forth.”

The initial lease is designed to target the Silverleaf whitefly. However, Volker has cited that this could pave the way for future drone releases of a variety of beneficial insects. She said: “That’s something we’re looking into closely, particularly now that we’ve got the fall armyworm issue.”

Are you looking to utilise drones for an agricultural project? Get in touch with us today.

These inspiring use cases demonstrate just some of the ways in which drones can be used to improve the agricultural sector, but there are many more. We regularly advise agriculture sector clients on the best drones for their purposes, and we can help you match your needs to a suitable product.

We also offer drone CAA approved drone training, global qualifications and on-going support for drone pilots, so it has never been more straightforward to start your drone journey. Get in touch today.

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