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Farmer’s eyes in the sky

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Agri-Tech Catalyst, Agri-tech Sector

While shepherds used drones to watch their flocks by night” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but according to FORTUNE, drones in agriculture should have taken off by now. Whether this is correct or not, drones and satellites in farming are technologies which keep on appearing in lists and forecasts of technology which will change agriculture.

What could they do?

Drones and satellites aren’t actually useful on their own. Their usefulness for farmers comes from what it attached – a sensor, camera, or even a crop sprayer – meaning applications are extensive and continuously expanding. Just a few of the current uses include:

  • monitoring diseases in crops
  • identifying weeds
  • pinpointing where pesticide or fertiliser needs to be applied
  • tracking animals

The use of drones in farming has even featured the BBC's The One Show recently – it is still available on iPlayer here – and it nicely summarises the technology and highlights the potential benefits to farmers.

Optimising yields and quality

The Agri-tech Catalyst has funded a project led by PepsiCo – makers of Quaker Oats – which aims to provide UK oat producers with world leading agronomic ‘tools’. The project will develop tools that will turn data from drones into data measurements to enable growers to optimise yield and quality across fields. The measurements can then be fed into an Oat Crop Model that can act as a guide for growers to decide what will achieve the best results for their crop. These innovative tools could increase average yields by at least 1 tonne per hectare (approximately a £15 million uplift per annum in output from the existing oat land base), whilst contributing to sustainable intensification, and reducing imports.

Monitoring crop growth

The Satellite Applications Catapult has also picked up on the potential of this technology in the agriculture sector. Recently the Satellite Applications Catapult has been looking the potential applications of radar (more specifically Synthetic Aperture Radar) in the cloudy temperate zones of the Earth like those found in the UK. To illustrate how successful commercial services can be developed using the Sentinel 1 satellite data the Satellite Applications Catapult first undertook an Agri-tech Catalyst project with AgSpace to understand the feasibility of using Sentinel 1 radar data to monitor crop growth. The project was successful and has now been followed up with a European Space Agency funded project, again led by AgSpace, to test and demonstrate the service, with an aim to make it commercially available to all farmers by the end of 2017.

The future

We are only at the start of unlocking the potential of drones and satellites in agriculture. The new Agri-EPI Centre, alongside the Satellite Applications Catapult, will no doubt play vital part in helping UK business exploit the potential of this exciting area. I can’t wait to see the changes this new technology brings to agriculture over the coming years, but let’s hope the nursery rhymes and Christmas carols are left as they are!

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