Aerial agronomy on a budget

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Hobby drones are becoming valuable agronomy aids that won’t break the bank, says Agrovista’s Lewis McKerrow.
Rapid developments in technology and processing software mean farmers can now use relatively cheap and simple drones for increasingly complex agronomic tasks.

Drones costing less than £1000 can measure a range of crop parameters such as establishment, biomass and presence of weeds and diseases, while spending a bit more will deliver the capability to assess plant counts from on high.
“Until relatively recently, you would have needed a high-spec professional drone costing about £10,000 fitted with specialist camera gear to map weeds quickly and efficiently,” says Lewis McKerrow, head of precision tech no logy at Agrovista.

“Now, a good quality hobby drone can produce similar results with standard visual camera gear for a fraction of the price.”
A typical crop-scanning flight, taking a picture every 7 seconds or so, will produce 1-2GB of data, says Mr McKerrow. Flying these surveillance tools several times across fields each season therefore produces masses of data.

Agrovista has recently launched a quick-turnaround data-processing service for growers using their own drones that can process this mountain of information, using its MaplT Pro software to create field zone maps.
These maps can be overlaid with other data sources, such as soil nutrient maps, to create variable rate maps for a range of inputs. Agrovista offers input recommendations as an additional service.
“The ultimate aim is to use data from several seasons to optimise crop establishment and minimise the need for rectifying treatments during the growing season,” says Mr McKerrow. Yield prediction models are also in the pipeline.

Drones such as the DJ I Phantom 4 Pro or the smaller DJI Mavik Pro cost around £1,600 and £1,100 respectively.
The Phantom has a 20-megapixel unit with a one-inch sensor, while the Mavik is fitted with a 12-megapixel camera and a half-inch sensor. The former is the better performer, but this is only likely to be noticed in low-light conditions.

These quadcopters are very maneuverable, have good rates of climb and top speeds approaching 30mph. With typical flight times of 15-20 minutes per battery, they can cover 30ha in calm conditions.
Operating a drone has never been simpler, says Mr McKerrow, although he does emphasise that anyone using a drone for commercial purposes must obtain a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operations).
“Flight planner apps for tablets and smartphones make it very easy for relatively unskilled operators to carry out these flights,” he says.

“All you need to do is download the operating app to your smartphone and you can assess field variation for yourself, to a very detailed standard.”
For farmers who want to use drone technology without the capital outlay, Agrovista also offers a commercial drone service featuring a range of flight packages carried out by the company’s fully-approved operators.

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