ANALYSIS - Technology that is more akin to the movie world and science fiction is starting to take a hold in the world of agriculture and farming.
For some time, farms have used satellite imagery to map field, to show differences in the soil and landscape and to monitor crops in order to ensure accurate sewing, fertilising and watering.
In the past, farmers have used helicopters and light aircraft at times to see for themselves the topography of their land.
Now they are starting to take to the air in a different and more remote way – using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.
The use of drones has caused some controversy with concerns over safety and the potential hazards that might be caused to civil aircraft.
Their controversial nature was even raised in the House of Lords, where a select committee has called for an EU register of drone owners.
The recommendation was made by the House of Lords EU Committee, which has been looking into what rules are needed to safeguard the use of unmanned aircraft.
It suggests the database would initially include businesses and other professional users, and then later expand to encompass consumers.
However, one expert questioned how useful such a register would be.
The committee's report warned that over-regulation risked stifling the drone industry, estimating that it could be responsible for creating as many as 150,000 jobs across Europe by 2050.
Even so, it suggested that creating the database would help the authorities manage and keep track of drone traffic.
However, for the farmer the use of UAVs can be seen as another useful tool to set alongside the tractor, quad bike and even sheepdog.
For Shropshire farmer and Nuffield scholar, Andrew Williamson, who has been using precision agriculture techniques since 2007 including yield mapping together with soil sampling and auto steerage on spraying, the use of the drone has been more specific.
He has been working with agricultural technology company Ursula to map the extent of brown grass among his crops.
“The UAV captures all the data very quickly. It is non-invasive and doesn’t do any damage to the crops,” he said during a seminar at the recent Precision Farming event in Nottingham.
However, he also issued a word of warning saying that capturing the data was one thing, but it needed meaningful analysis “to give value to the bottom line”.
“We have to use the data to make us more profitable,” he said.
Keith Geary, from the UAV Special Interest Group of the National Centre for Precision Farming and whose company G2Way has developed a fixed wing drone as part of the Low Level Earth Observation project that uses electrically powered micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems to produce super spatial resolution earth surface imagery in the visible and Near Infra-Red region of the electromagnetic spectrum to support land surface management.
He said the system that has been used for potato planting among other areas of agriculture produces mapping that can be overlaid on Google maps and the system is now seeing multi-spectrum cameras being used.
He said the UAVs can be attached to a laptop to allow the farmer to quickly monitor the fields and crops.
Will Mumford, who farms 600 acres of heavy Bedfordshire clay, is now using a delta winged UAV with a camera that takes 2.5cm per pixel pictures and has a geographic accuracy to between two and four centimetres.
He said that in the wet spring, he could not use his tractor to access the fields, but by using a UAV he was able to make the first survey of the field for seeding before the field was dry.
Justin Pringle from UAV technology company Heliguy specialises in drones with a rotary propulsion that were designed for the film industry and have now been adopted by the farming and agriculture sector.
Using drones that have a multipurpose has had the advantage of bringing the costs down. Farmers could now buy one for as little as £600.
Mr Pringle said that the use of a UAV is more than just mapping the field and inspecting the crops.
Using a drone can give real time information that can allow the farmer to act immediately to remedy patchy sewing or poor fertiliser distribution.
However, he said that these low flying drones have also been able to spot fly tippers on the farm to allow the farmer to alert the police and they are also able to monitor livestock and their movements in remote areas through the IEDs in the eartags.
“If you get in the air, you view the big schematic,” he said.
“You can see things such as soil saturation and deal with it.”
He said that using the UAV regularly will help the farmer see different things at different times and be able to get a view that he would never be able to achieve from a tractor.
And he added that drones can also go into some areas that are inaccessible to the farmer such as inspecting the inside of silage clamps
While UAVs can be used without a licence, for any commercial use operators have to take a training course and qualify for a licence as well as submit flight plans to the Civil Aviation Authority.
The expectation for drones in the future is for developments that will take them far beyond simple mapping and crop visuals.
Although limited by the weight they can carry they could also be used to distribute certain applications to fields such as slug pellets, but their present value is seen as a data management tool that removes some of the human aspect and the potential for error for assessing crops and livestock.
They will be gaining data for a reason – profit and improved agricultural output.
(Pictured above is the G2Way Fixed winged UAV)