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National Centre for Precision Farming hosts fifth annual Drones for Farming conference

Posted 21 November

"With drone imagery, we can now monitor each plant individually, but we’re still treating fields, for example, with 36 metre boom sprayers, that does not allow us to farm very precisely."

Keynote speaker Matteo Triacca takes a question from the floor

Keynote speaker Matteo Triacca takes a question from the floor

The National Centre for Precision Farming (NCPF), based at Harper Adams University, has successfully hosted its fifth Drones for Farming conference which was attended by farmers, drone pilots and academics.

A total of eleven presentations were given throughout the day, on a variety of topics, including new technology and drone farming systems that have been developed, regulations, along with real-life experiences of using drones to assist with crop health monitoring.

One of the organisers, Debbie Heeks, from the NCPF, said: “Many of our presentations focus around the topic of drones for arable farm monitoring. This year, farm building inspection was presented as a further use of drones and its technology capability. This was of interest to a number of people in the audience and was provided by Duncan Armstrong of Kestrel Cam.

“Throughout the day, participants heard on-farm case studies, software solutions, drone hardware, sensor technology, end-to-end data capture and handling, safety and regulations.

“There was also the opportunity for participants to discuss drone technology with professionals from the Harper Adams University UAS Special Interest Group.”

Speaker Matt Williams, from Aerial Motion Pictures Ltd, commented on how the questions have evolved over the years: “I came to the very first Drones for Farming conference five years ago. It’s amazing to see the growth each year and to see how quickly the questions have gone from what are drones and how can we use them, to now when we’re hearing how aircraft can fly for an hour and collect hundreds and hundreds of megabytes, or in some cases gigabytes, of data.”

Keynote speaker Matteo Triacca, director of senseFly, shared the impressive capabilities of their latest drone products. He said: “One of our drones can fly for 59 minutes, covering 220 hectares each flight. Results can be turned around for the farmer in only 24 to 38 hours.

“However I see drones and cameras as a piece of overall farm management systems.

“The role of the agronomist is pivotal for the information gathered to be used correctly.”

These sentiments were echoed by Jim Wilson from Soil Essentials Ltd. He said: “Agriculture is complicated, and so if we want to integrate drones into our daily farming lives, we need to mirror these complications in our system.

“I see drones as a tool, but they’re not the only one.

“The market is moving; drone technology is advancing fast and the cost and complexity is dropping quickly but other imagery providers are moving on.

“I see it as picking the right tool for the right job and integrating drone and satellite imagery along with, for example, weather and crop models, field and crop boundaries, soil samples, soil texture and yielding mapping.”

However, some of the speakers, including Kieran Walsh from Hutchinsons and Ivan Grove of Harper Adams, spoke about the need for more precise farming vehicles as the information being produced by drones is not able to be used to its full advantage.

Harper Adams researcher Jonathan Gill said: “Drone imagery and technology has moved quickly, but legislation and autonomous precision farming robots are not at the same stage.

“With drone imagery, we can now monitor each plant individually, but we’re still treating fields, for example, with 36 metre boom sprayers, that does not allow us to farm very precisely.

“Ideally, we need to move to smaller machines which can target individual plants or field areas. One method of solving this would require more vehicles than what are currently used. I can predict multiple autonomous machines working together in swarms or fleets, and the farm worker then works as their fleet manager.

“In addition, sprayer drones already exist, enhancing spray area zooming-in resolution with the benefit of zero soil compaction. Currently legislation doesn’t allow us to apply chemicals to plants from the air, so this would need to be altered before this technology could be deployed.”

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