While the vision of autonomous farm-bots buzzing around the countryside seems a distant prospect, the ground-breaking trial at Letton, near Shipdham, proves the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to treat crops from the air.
Chris Eglington of technology firm Crop Angel is using the equipment to spray biostimulants on a test plot at his farm, as part of a yield enhancement trial in partnership with Harper Adams University and fellow UAV specialists Drone AG.
While drones are already well used in agriculture to monitor crops and gather data on plant health, Mr Eglington says this is the first time a UAV has legally been used to spray an agricultural product on UK soil.
Although the consortium won approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to drop products from the air, he said it is not yet allowed to drop most mainstream commercial agrochemicals or pesticides, as they are not approved to do so by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate.
But he said the trial was a good indication of how this technology could potentially be applied in the future.
“The way I see something like this working would be if it is autonomous it could be working 24/7 so if the weather station tells the drone the weather is just right for spraying then the drone could get up, go and do its spraying, come back, refuel, re-load and go up again,” he said.
“In the short term I think it could be used to spray places where it is difficult to spray any other way. A boom sprayer cannot go over a mountain and cannot go over a very high crop or a wood, so there are three examples straight away where a drone will be able to spray.
“I think we will see more of them buzzing around doing crop inspections first, before we see this sort of thing but I see no reason why in two or three years time why we should not see them working on specific things – but it will be more on expensive crops like strawberries, orchards or particularly vineyards.”
The drone itself is imported from China, but Mr Eglington’s company has made a number of “fine tuning” adjustments for water volumes, height, bout width, flight speed and nozzle size to suit weather conditions and make the best use of the batteries.
It has four nozzles, two pumps, and a 10-litre tank, with the pilot able to control the rate of application between six and 60 litres per hectare, flying at a height of 1.5-2.5m above the crop, and guided by satellite to accurately follow a pre-mapped path.
The project consortium, which is looking at the benefits of precision farming using agricultural spray drone systems, was contacted by AminoA Biostimulants, a company specialising in amino-acid based plant biostimulants.
The products have been sprayed on a four-hectare field of winter wheat at Mr Eglington’s farm, and the resulting crop will be analysed by the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) to assess its performance.
Jack Wrangham of Drone Ag said: ‘It’s great to see the team finally putting drone spraying technology to use here in the UK, this will be the first in a number trials that will hopefully show the benefits of this technology in a number of areas.”
Debbie Heeks, of Harper Adams University added: “It is essential to understand that whilst the application of micronutrients and biostimultants may not require specific permissions from the Health and Safety Executive, the application of plant protection products that are subject to CRD approval is prohibited via UAV and will result in prosecution.”
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