One might think that agri-tech is a safe place for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to take off, but they face significant challenges in the industry. On our recent visit to the Cereals 2018 exhibition in Duxford, we saw the latest developments in cutting edge agricultural technology. A few exciting live demonstrators were shown to the public, from crop-spraying drones to the Hands Free Hectare - a fully automated combined harvester. Together with artificial intelligence and machine learning these technologies may be in their infancy but they are part of a much larger and wider disruptive redesign of the agricultural engine.
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UAVs look to play an elitist role in this disruptive future. Autonomous aircraft are still the fastest means of gathering information about the status and health of a crop. They are positioned perfectly to assist with the planning of daily and monthly activities on a farm. Their reconnaissance abilities can map out the entire farm while communicating directly with the tools on the ground, thus offering precision agriculture at its best.
However, these benefits don’t come without any challenges. Here are four key milestones that need to be overcome.
The first and possibly the highest hurdle, is flying the aircraft Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS). A good number of farms are larger than a square kilometre, these farms would require several flights to map the area unless the UAV is rated for BVLOS flight. At the core of a BVLOS rated aircraft is the safety and liability; is the aircraft safe to fly in the airspace, is it safe to the public, if there is an incident, who will take responsibility for it. In the UK a large portion of farms have public footpaths, the regulatory authority will be looking for safe operation in these ‘public’ locations as well as many more. Currently only a selective few operators have the authority to fly BVLOS under test conditions. When the technology matures, this will open up the commercial market.
As a UAV flies overhead, it is recording copious amounts of data, often in high resolutions like 4k, it is not uncommon for a single flight to generate gigabytes of data. How this data is used is key to the success of the mission. The quality and the visual processing of the data, the machine learning and the implementation of horticultural science to understand how each crop develops will be a defining point for the industry. The data will need to be packaged in multiple formats from multispectral cameras to LiDAR, over a variety of platforms – ground and air. This will require sufficient infrastructure that can process all data and turn it into actionable information.
Integration of the technology is another hurdle that will challenge the industry, UAVs are at their best when integrated on a system level. There are many start-up companies in the industry right now, how they integrate their data with the tools on the ground will be a key differentiator in the coming future. Larger firms who manufacture the ground hardware will have a significant lead when it comes to the product integration. How they use their advantage may squeeze some of the smaller players out of the market.
When we think of drones today we largely think of quadcopters, and while these are very effective across smaller areas they don’t compare to fixed wing aircraft when it comes to range. To be effective and cover both the medium to larger farms, a mixture of quadcopters and fixed wing drones will be essential. The challenge will be carrying a decent sized payload a significant distance. One such company, Quantum-Systems has managed to combine the effectiveness of vertical flight with the range of a fixed wing aircraft, with a stated range on the trinity drone around 500 hectares.
Tackling these key issues will open the door for UAVs in their masses in the space. The outcome will be a sufficient technological advancement and disrupt the current market place as we know it. This is an industry that is well worth keeping an eye on.