The traditional image of the farmer tending his crops in the field is about to change with the introduction of drone technology and ‘precision agriculture,’ otherwise known as smart farming.

By 2050, it is expected that the global population will have increased to 9.6 billion, up from the current population of 7.2 billion. Experts have also predicted that food production will need to increase by about 70% to meet this population rise and the greater demand on resources.

To achieve this increase, scientists and experts have indicated that farmers will need to adopt precision farming using advanced technology to increase output without decreasing quality. One of those technological advances that can be easily adopted by farmers is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones.

Drones are not a new technology. They’ve been in use commercially since the 1980s, though they were expensive to use then and required specialist operators. In recent years, drones have become cheaper and more accessible, and as the technology has advanced it has been possible to produce smaller more commercially viable drones.

The advent of smaller drones which are easy to use has come with advances in technology such as GPS modules, high resolution cameras, infra-red and thermal sensors – and even ground penetrating radar to aid measuring soil conditions. Drones have become relatively cost-effective with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities. Farmers can now purchase a small drone for under £1,000.

Remote sensoring technology has advanced so greatly that sensors can now be carried on a small commercially bought drone, whereas in the past they required manned aircraft or satellite connectivity, placing them out of reach for most in the farming industry.

The practical applications for drone use are expanding faster than ever – everything from soil and field analysis, crop-spraying, crop monitoring, irrigation and health assessment. Drones can provide views of crops from the air that can reveal issues such as pest and fungal infestations, irrigation issues and soil variations not necessarily visible at eye level.

In 2013, a wine producer in California used drones to locate sections of the vineyard that were ripening earlier than expected, prompting an earlier harvest of those areas. The information gathered by a drone could mean the difference between a failed crop or a bumper harvest. Drones have the ability to fly very low over a crop to provide a very detailed view.

Using infra-red sensors, drones can detect stress in a plant ten days before it becomes visible to the naked eye. This can provide a ten-day warning system that could prevent a large-scale crop loss. Drones can monitor crops every hour, day and week, which in turn can reveal changes in a crop highlighting trouble spots. If a small area of a field becomes infested with weeds, a farmer could spray the affected area without having to spray the entire field.

This would improve efficiency and lower costs as well as the impact to the local environment because drones showed where to spot spray.

They can also be utilised in livestock surveillance, with the ability to fly over, in and around a herd to collect various forms of information, including illness, pregnancy and any injuries sustained by individual animals. Those same drones are able to recognize and monitor individuals from the herd that may need additional follow-up care.

Currently, there is no licence required to fly and use a drone, but there is a qualification provided by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) for those who are employed for commercial reasons to fly a drone, known as the Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO). A consumer flyer doesn’t require this qualification if it’s for recreational use. The CAA class drones as a type of aircraft and not a toy, so there are rules and regulations that need to be followed.

The drone needs to be under 20kg, and can’t be flown 150 metres within a congested area or within 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot. You will also need to fly the aircraft within sight. This means you can’t go above 400ft in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. If you want to exceed that, you’ll need to seek explicit permission from the CAA. Any drone which is over 20kg can only be flown in designated areas such as Parc Aberporth aerodrome in West Wales.

There are also several smart phone/device apps that will provide information of airspace usage, such as areas to avoid flying for security and safety reasons, as well as weather information. One such app, Drone Assist, is provided free by NATS (National Air Traffic Services). It includes an interactive map of UK airspace used by commercial aircraft and shows the user which areas are safe to fly as well as those areas that are restricted for security reasons.