The potential of drones in industrial sectors

10 min read

30 May 2014

The drones are coming… farmers, the agri-tech sector and, more broadly, the UK should seize the initiative and embrace this disruptive technology.

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. 

Yamaha’s 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 Japan’s 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 team’s 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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Drone use by inspectors

The European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the EU Council of Ministers and the European Commission have recently reached an agreement on the reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy. The new proposal will replace the Single Payment Scheme with a “Basic Payment” and a “Greening Payment”. There appears to be an increased ecological focus to the scheme; it introduces compulsory ecological focus areas, new requirements for permanent grassland and crop diversification and “greening penalties” for non-compliance. 

It is likely that inspectors will need to utilise new technologies to keep on top of policing the requirements. In an effort to drive efficiency and savings, satellites have been used extensively in recent years by the EU so that in 2010 approximately 70 per cent of all such inspections were by satellite rather than physical on-site inspections. Satellite imagery does not come without its practical problems. For example, in Austria shadows cast by mountains can make satellite images inaccurate and Scotland decided against using satellites primarily because of challenges with cloud cover.

Drones are starting to have a greater application for inspections – filling in the gaps between physical inspection and satellite imagery use. Drones have been used on a small scale in Spain’s Catalonia region, where authorities use their high resolution images for inspecting smallholdings with mixed crops that are typical of the region. They are able to fly at low altitudes close to the fields and, unlike satellites, which always look directly down, drones are able to take images from several angles. Drones are also typically cheaper and more flexible for inspectors than using satellites or manned flights.

Drone use by protestors or intruders

The rural community may encounter drone use by protesters or intruders onto land. This is a potential threat for game shoots, intensive and GM farming and areas where animal culling or hunting takes place. Drones give activist groups the ability to infiltrate private parties and private land from the air in a simple, dramatic and affordable way. Anyone can purchase a reasonable quality drone with a camera for a few hundred pounds that can be flown from a smartphone or tablet. 

In such situations it is unlikely the drone will be correctly regulated and so it is important to manage the immediate safety risk. It would then be prudent to contact the police and a solicitor who could advise on trespass, damage and nuisance, as well as alerting authorities such as the CAA and the Information Commissioner’s Office who all have powers to deal with groups and individuals who break the law in this area.

The future and a role for the UK

Drone and sensor technology has advanced to the point where its use can have a major impact on business efficiency, citizens and communities. Relatively tight, but not prohibitive, regulation is currently a perceived obstacle to major uptake in the agriculture sector; however this is set to change. All predictions are that the agriculture and rural sector can realise most benefit from the technology. AUVSI believes that the agriculture industry is expected to be the largest sector for drones, comprising approximately 80 per cent of the known potential commercial markets for unmanned aircraft.

The UK is at the forefront of drone technology, airspace regulation, innovative farming techniques and agri-tech. It should seize the opportunities and position itself to exploit the major impact that drones will undoubtedly have on the global agricultural marketplace.

Peter Lee is Senior Associate with international technology law firm Taylor Vinters LLP and is one of Europe’s leading drone lawyers.