The role of Drones in Farming

As agricultural technology develops - from robot crop pickers to recording crop data - we look at the way drones are revolutionising farming tasks.

We visited arable farmer Toby Gasson who has just bought himself a drone – the £1,000 DJI Mavic Pro. He is already using it to scare pigeons off his crops, and to monitor the crop health with a view to identify early signs of plant disease.

He also plans to use it for aerial surveys to spot broken field drains - or even spot a leaky grain store roof before water gets in and spoils the stored grain.

Until practical drones became available, these tasks could only be performed from the air by chartering a hugely expensive helicopter.

Toby, who farms in Warwickshire, thinks the drone will be an invaluable tool to assess crop development. However, he doesn’t think it will ever replace traditional crop walking:

"We've still got to have feet on the ground, crop walking every ten days or so," he says. "I don't think a drone will be able to see the difference between black grass and a wheat plant."

With us is Jack Wrangham, of Drone AG, which specialises in developing agricultural drone technology. Jack has brought along a drone like Toby’s – but with a host of hi-tech tools to make it even more useful to farmers.

Using an app such as Drone Deploy, within seconds of the drone taking off, it starts capturing images of Toby's field and then stitching them all together to generate a digital map. We watch it all come together on Jack's tablet.

Jack taps his screen. "We have a new app called Skippy Scout that does the crop walking for you. You can take sample photos from only a metre above the crop, run digital analysis and identify things like black grass and insect damage. You can then scout these areas with the drone, rather than walking the field."

Toby is impressed. He didn't know drones could map a field like this. Maybe it could take the place of walking up and down the fields, he admits.

Jack goes on to tell us how drones are being used by livestock farmers too. It's still early days, but with thermal technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the mix, you could do more than keep watch – you could monitor for health issues. More and more things that are done manually now are going to be managed automatically.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Rules

So, what are the rules for farmers using drones on their farm?

Jonathan Nicholson of the CAA says not all farmers using drones will need the Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO) to comply with the law.

"In most cases, they probably don't – a PfCO licence is only essential for commercial use, such as if you operate your drone over someone else's land in return for payment."

What about where you can and can't fly?

Jonathan cites the CAA's Drone Code, available online at dronesafe.uk and included with most drones on sale in the UK. The main rules are don't fly too high (over 400ft or 120m) or too close to people and property (150ft or 50m) and always keep your drone in sight.

"This is not just best practice," he says. "It's the law. It's there for everyone's safety and protection. Break the law and you could be prosecuted."

Insuring your drone

To protect our customers, we have launched a tailored drone insurance solution for farmers, in partnership with Gallagher’s aviation team.

Charlie Yorke explains: "What sort of insurance farmers need really comes down to how you're using the drone. For any use that is not purely recreational, you need at least third-party liability insurance.

"As with any activity on the farm, you need to think about risk: what happens if the drone hits somebody or causes property damage? You need to make sure you've got those liabilities covered.

"If you are using a drone on your farm, or on a neighbouring farm, it's really important you speak to your local NFU Mutual office so they can offer advice and help you get the most out of this exciting new technology, while protecting yourself from possible costs if something goes wrong."