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The potential of drones in industrial sectors

There is exciting potential for unmanned aerial systems or drones in several industrial sectors including oil and gas, inspection work, border patrol and especially in agriculture. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (AUVSI) predicts agricultural drone use has the potential to be a 18bn market over the next decade. However, there are currently certain restrictions preventing widespread use of drones.

All non-military aircraft registered in the UK must have a certificate of airworthiness or a permit to fly issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA differentiates and strikes a pragmatic balance between model aircraft hobbyists, who have been flying safely for years, and professional drone operators who conduct aerial work . Although there are special conditions for small drones less than 20kg in weight used for aerial work purposes , CAA permission and minimum levels of third-party accident insurance are required, as well as compliance with certain safety constraints.

The CAA has been actively engaged with the unmanned system community for a number of years. This approach has led to a safe, reasonably flexible and evolving regulatory framework which continues to develop as the technology improves and makes more sophisticated automation and beyond line of sight sorties possible. The EU has also set out its policy to develop a new strategy for integrating drones to the airspace, which should see restrictions on their use throughout Europe relaxed.

Drone use by farmers

Drones are used for spraying, seeding, remote sensing, precision agriculture, frost mitigation, inspection, herding and variable rate dispersal.

Precision farming applications for drones are well developed in Japan, partly because many farms are small – typically around five acres in size. The Japanese agriculture ministry commissioned Yamaha to start developing an unmanned aircraft to assist precision farmers in the early 1980s that led to the development in the 1990s of an unmanned helicopter to spray both herbicide and fertilizer.

Yamahas leading drone product is a pilotless helicopter called RMAX which is three meters long. It is possible for a controller to fly six helicopters at once using six frequencies in combination to control a number of helicopters during spraying operation. RMAX are typically leased to trained operators who are hired by farmers. The helicopters are used on approximately 2.5m acres, or about 40 per cent of Japans rice fields. Yamaha has since exported the RMAX to South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

But RMAX helicopters have many uses, including identifying where nitrogen levels are low, to analyse the growth of a specific field section over time and use infrared light cameras to reveal plant health by reflecting how efficient photosynthesis is in various plants. State of crop intelligence collected from small unmanned aircraft is being utilised by several agriculturalists around the world. Drone technology can be used to drive improved performance, including precision agriculture practices, early warning of crop disease, better estimation of fertiliser requirements, yield assessment, disease and stress detection, managing pesticides, invasive weed mapping, drought monitoring, pollution control and others.

Project Ursula is a UK-based research and development programme using drones to explore the potential of imaging in land applications, primarily high-input arable farming. The Project Ursula teams research suggests that a key advantage of drone remote sensing is the ability to obtain more timely and higher-resolution data than can currently be achieved by other means. Payload sensors available to drone operators can capture standard photographic images visible to the human eye, but also in wavelengths beyond the visible spectrum such as infra-red. These contain information that can be used to more easily detect issues such as crop health, damage and stress. These various pieces of the crop intelligence picture can be taken together by farmers and used to focus their resources and improve yields.

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