Farmers have often been accused of liking their toys, preferably big and shiny. The reality is that these pieces of kit have a serious purpose, to get through as much work as possible and as efficiently as possible. To date that has generally meant the trend was to go bigger, but that may be about to change as drones and robots begin to appear in agriculture.
CAFRE Crops Adviser Iain Johnston has been investigating the potential for an App, developed by DroneAg based in Northumberland, to reduce the time required for farmers and agronomists to effectively monitor crops. The “Skippy Scout” App allows the use of a small drone to fly autonomously to pre-selected points in the field. The number and location of the points are selected by simply tapping the on-screen map. Once there, the drone descends to 2m above the crop using on-board sensors and photographs the crop. As the flight completes, the photographs taken upload automatically to your phone or tablet allowing them to be reviewed immediately. The level of detail is sufficient to identify leaf damage or disease, as well as identify weeds as small as the cotyledon stage.
While use of this technology does not remove the need for boots on the ground, it does allow much greater areas to be covered in a given time and also allows repeat visits to the same points during the season to monitor crops and the effectiveness of treatments. The exciting developments with this App come as regular updates, with increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to provide information such as Green Area Index (GAI) used for Oilseed Rape fertiliser management and emergence assessment in cereals.
In practice the App and drone are very simple to use, even for those with no experience of drones, with all the setup of farms and fields able to be done on your phone screen. Your own field maps or yield maps can even be imported via a photograph and overlaid on Google maps to allow easier identification of areas of interest.
Once the maps have been set up and the drone connected, a short pre-flight check to ensure everything is in order and the “Fly Now” button appears on screen. Tapping this sees the drone take off and follow the pre-selected route, descending to take a picture before moving to the next point, all autonomously. At the end of the flight the drone will return and land itself as the pictures upload to your phone.
Overall, the system looks to have great potential in monitoring crops, helping to cover more ground in the available time. The system is being continuously developed and in the future may provide further information to help link with variable rate application of inputs helping target crop inputs more accurately helping reduce the environmental impact of growing crops.
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