Sky’s the limit for farm drones

The flying of drones was banned in the air space over the site of the national ploughing championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois, last September.

It was part of temporary flight restrictions imposed by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) for the three-day event.

The action was in the safety interests of civil aircraft operating in and out of the 800-acre site and of other air traffic operating in the vicinity of Ratheniska during the period.

But it also highlighted the growing use of drones, mostly by hobbyists but also for commerical landscape photography, filming and site surveying.

There are an estimated 6,000 drones in Ireland with a small number of farmers already using them to check on tillage crops and sheep flocks, saving time and costs.

It is generally accepted that drones will become more prevalent, especially among farmers focused on precision agriculture. But the Irish Aviation Authority website advises all prospective operators to be aware of their responsibilities and to ensure that these drones don’t endanger other airspace users or people.

The Small Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets Order which came in into force last December applies to the majority of model aircraft and drones used in Ireland.

Senator David Norris, speaking in the Upper House earlier this year, said he was concerned after hearing on radio a farmer from Tipperary saying that his 25 year-old son had seen a drone flying over the farm at a level of some 500 ft at 9.30 p.m.

“It was obviously being used to survey the farm for the purpose of burglary. The drones are able to get details on the layout, the entrances, the exits and the whole plan of a farm. This is very intrusive and it should be controlled,” he said.

Drones can play a critical role, however, in helping farmers with limited resources to produce more food to feed a growing world.

Copa and Cogeca, the umbrella body for European farmers and co-ops, said precision agriculture offers great opportunities in terms of minimizing inputs and maximizing productivity, providing a whole new farm management approach.

“In combination with other ‘smart’ techniques, drones can contribute to enhanced resource efficiency, productivity and profitability as well as greater sustainability, contributing to the fight against environmental damage.

“They are currently used to complement traditional remote sensing techniques and enable farmers to monitor nutrients in the soil and herd monitoring,” it said.

Copa and Cogeca has also welcomed a recent decision by Brussels to ask the European Aviation Safety Agency to develop a set of rules for drones.

But it said it is crucial to strike the right balance between regulation and innovation and to ensure that prescriptive rules are proportional to the complexity of the operation.

Innovation, research and smart farming will also be the topic of a workshop at the Copa and Cogeca Congress of European Farmer in Greece on October 5-6 this year.

It says innovation contributes to a competitive, efficient EU agriculture sector, helping farmers to cut production costs and produce more with less.

Precision farming, robots and drones are becoming the words of the day, to ensure a successful agriculture industry tomorrow.

They are the reality right now for a limited number of farmers, but a better understanding of this new technology is required.

Copa Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said European farmers and co-ops need to be in the driving seat of this debate.

“Precision farming is all about recognising, understanding and exploiting information that quantifies variations in soil and crops and in livestock production.

“Information collected on farms can be combined with historical and real-time data on weather predictions, soil conditions, crop features and many other data sets and then used by companies on a commercial scale to help farmers improve their productivity.

“Robots are increasingly being used in dairy farms and feeding cattle. Soon they may arrive to vineyards and horticulture.

“Drones show huge potential in agriculture. But we need to step up training so that farmers have the right skills to use this technology,” he said.

Mr Pesonen said it is vital that research and innovation efforts in this field bring added value to farmers and co-operatives.

Meanwhile, much of the future for drones in the United States is expected to be on farms, which are mostly free of the privacy and safety concerns associated with more populated areas.

A Bank of America Merrill Lynch global research report says the agri-drone market has the potential to generate an additional 100,000 jobs in the US and $82bn in economic activity between now and 2025.

The report indicates that robots in the next 10 years could become the main workhorses powering farms, instead of people.

“People in the US and the EU no longer want to work on farms due to factors such as low farm incomes, its lack of reliability and seasonal nature, and its demanding and risky nature.

“Today, less than 1% of the US population claims farming as an occupation — with the average number of US farm workers having declined from 3.4m last century to 1m today,” the report states.

New technology is also reflected in the recent launch of a camera for drones that is intended to show farmers the differences between healthy and distressed crops, where to add or reduce water or pesticides, or help them determine when to harvest.

Jonatill Gill, Harper Adams University in Britain, also told a National Farmers Union event in South Wales he believed drones will be used in the future by many farmers as just as another tool.

The second generation of drones will take the system into the real farm environment to do work, like seeding or spraying, he said.


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