One Lincolnshire agronomist has embraced drone technology to assist with his crop walking services. Geoff Ashcroft reports.
Independent agronomist Sean Sparling manages around 9,700ha of crops for 26 customers around Market Rasen, Lincolnshire. It is a task that sees him walk 10-12 miles a day, as he aims to see all his customers on a weekly basis.
“I don’t use a quad bike to inspect crops - I’m old-school and having learnt my craft from the older generation, I believe traditional methods do let me see more of what’s going on.
“Crop walking is about being thorough - walking slowly and searching, making the most of what you can and cannot see.”
But the logistics - and challenges - of getting around such an area, which includes combinable crops, sugar beet, roots, turf, potatoes and poppies, has brought a natural ceiling to the amount of hectares he can manage.
“A lot of my customers have adjoining fields, and this makes it easier to cover such a large area, relatively easily,” he says. “But I’ve recently switched to using technology to improve the level of crop inspections I can provide.”
That technology is a small, unmanned surveillance aircraft - or drone.
See also: Using drones safely and legally on-farm
Mr Sparling, who is also vice chairman of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC), put his money into a Phantom 2 Vision Plus, a multi-rotor aircraft with an integral camera that offers the capability to hover, while filming and photographing crops.
He has been flying his drone for the last 18 months or so, using it to see deep into areas of fields that become increasingly more difficult to access, once crop canopies thicken.
“The Phantom is a really useful bit of kit that lets me do my job much better, particularly when crop growth makes it harder to walk fields,” he says. “After all, I’m being paid to look after my customers’ fields, so it is important that I do not miss anything.”
He adds that from mid-April onwards, it gets increasingly difficult to walk into dense crop canopies.
“The task can be infinitely more tricky with oilseed rape,” he explains. “Having a drone provides another viewing option for me - it lets me fly over fields and look for weed patches, pests or diseases that have become harder to reach from ground level.”
“It has become a useful machine to help to identify black-grass patches, but perhaps the best role is for spotting pollen beetle. I place sticky strips on fence posts in the middle of fields, but you can’t get to them very easily when the crop canopy fills out.
“So I’ll fly my drone over the crop to the posts, take a photo of the strips, and then review the images with my customers,” he says.
Oxfordshire agronomist and farmer Sam Clarke has witnessed drone technology in use for field analysis, but has not yet bought.
“Drones definitely have a role in farming, but the technology is evolving so quickly, you’re better off waiting to see which way software, camera technology and application maps are likely to move,” he says.
But there is no need to jump in spending thousands to have the latest technology, he believes.
“Information is no good if you can’t make use of it,” he says. “But as an extra pair of eyes, they do have a value.
“Flying over a field could offer a quicker and easier way of determining when to apply pre-harvest glyphosate. Using a drone can let you see weed infestations in wheat for example, a lot sooner, than walking.
“And you stand a better chance of spraying-off before the weed sets its head, without having to spray the entire field.
“Field photography can also be a useful early warning if you’re looking for something specific, such as slug damage - you’ll see much more in less time.”
He has used the Phantom at least once on every farm he crop walks.
“Its use is purely strategic. It’s not something I rely on, but it is another tool that helps me to work more efficiently.
“I don’t charge extra for this - it just helps me to do a more thorough job, which keeps me ahead of the game. As a device to show customers what is going on, it is invaluable.”
Mr Sparling says five of his customers have now bought their own drones, after seeing the value of a different perspective from flying over their own crops.
See also: Taking a new view of arable farming
“I do believe that drones are a great management tool - and every farmer should have one,” he says. “I’ve also used it to photograph crop damage from spray drift, marking the image and location with GPS data, plus with time and date code.
“Using an aerial photo, it is easy to measure the affected area using Google maps, to clarify an insurance claim.”
But he warns there are drawbacks with using drones.
“There is a considerable cost involved in getting your own kit,” he says. “And there are costs involved with operating them too. But a drone is more cost-effective than buying a quad bike.”
And using a drone can be time consuming, he warns.
“It’s very easy to be distracted by them, and as a result, you can easily waste time that you simply haven’t got.
“By the time you set everything up, calibrate the compass and prepare for flight, you can lose a lot of time. If you can walk a field, you’re much better doing so.”
He also believes there are limited opportunities for flight - if it is raining, misty or very windy, you are not going to take out a light weight, electrically-powered drone.
“It’s just like spraying - there aren’t that many days when you can really make the most of aerial activity - but when you can, the basic information you can gather is still impressive.”
Having used the device for about 18 months, he sees huge potential in technology, moving forward.
“As technology evolves, farmers will rely more and more on this type of equipment for crop analysis and information,” he says. “I’m watching with interest - though it’ll be a year or two before I change my drone and step up to providing more advanced aerial services.”
Agrovista’s head of precision technology, Lewis McKerrow, believes the biggest challenges yet to come from using UAVs will be how growers make the most of data being collected.
“There has been huge growth in using UAVs in agriculture over the last 12-18 months, but understanding and acting upon the information you see, will be the next hurdle for growers to overcome.
“Technology is changing rapidly, and we’ve been trialling different types of equipment with a view to extending our services in 2016,” he adds. “A UAV will help enormously with the continuation of our on-going trials site work. It will enable easier identification of crop vulnerability and weed patches from the air, which should lead to more efficient generation of treatment maps and a faster response with chemical applications.”
He says the firm is leaning towards fixed wing aircraft for their extended flight times and their ability to cover more area than rotary aircraft. But he accepts there are roles for both types.
“Typical flight times of fixed wing UAVs is around 40 minutes,” he says. “It is around twice as much flight time as a quadcopter or hexacopter.”
He believes such equipment has tremendous potential as an advanced early warning mechanism for growers. And in the right circumstances, imaging - even simple photographs - can provide a rapid update on field and crop status, following a simple flight.
Though perhaps the biggest downside to a UAV, he suggests, is a lack of weather-proofing.
“Electronics and the UK’s typically wet weather simply don’t mix,” he says. “And this alone will naturally restrict your flying opportunities.”
For farmers though, he reckons the simple functionality of a quadcopter with a camera, could easily lead them to an area of a field where they might not have crop-walked.
[Poss pull quote] “There is no doubt that UAV technology is here to stay - it’s what you do with the information that will make them much more of an essential management tool, rather than the latest electronic gadget.”