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Unlocking Efficiency: Drones in Agronomy

News - 03.08.23

Northamptonshire grower Will Green has embraced drone technology to revolutionize nitrogen applications, leading to significant cost savings and environmental benefits.

Unlocking Efficiency: Drones in Agronomy

Northamptonshire grower Will Green has embraced drone technology to revolutionize nitrogen applications, leading to significant cost savings and environmental benefits.

This innovative approach, facilitated by Agrii agronomist Andrew Lowe, demonstrates the potential of drones in shaping the future of precision agriculture.

Precision Nitrogen Management

Will Green's drone-assisted nitrogen management strategy involves capturing multiple images across wheat fields, correlating them with soil nitrogen test results.

The result? A reduction of nearly 70kg/ha in ammonium nitrate rates, showcasing the precision and efficacy of this technology.

Efficiency in Crop Nutrition

The primary gain from drone technology, according to Andrew Lowe, lies in improving crop nutrition. The drone's rapid scanning ability provides accurate plant counts, streamlining the integration of nitrogen fertiliser programmes. This eliminates the need for manual crop assessments, saving time and ensuring optimal nutrition.

Tailored Nitrogen Applications

By combining soil mineral nitrogen tests and green area index (GAI) measurements from the drone, Will determines the exact nitrogen requirements for his wheat crop. This tailored approach, as opposed to generic recommendations, allows for precise applications, optimizing yield without unnecessary nitrogen provision.

Environmental Stewardship

Beyond cost savings, the use of nitrogen becomes a strategic environmental move. Andrew emphasises the importance of using nitrogen wisely to reduce environmental impact. The drone's ability to avoid wastage, prevent nitrates from entering water courses, and cut ammonia losses aligns with sustainability goals.

Assessing Success: Yield, Costs, and Carbon Savings

Will's experience with drone-assisted nitrogen management demonstrates tangible success in terms of yield, cost savings, and reduced carbon footprint.

Impressive Yield Results

In the 2022 season, nitrogen savings ranging from 58kg/ha to 69kg/ha translated into impressive yields.

Achieving 9.4t/ha, one of the best results on his farm, while maintaining an average of 8.25t/ha, showcased the potential for both high productivity and cost-effectiveness.

Economic Impact

The cost savings weren't just about nitrogen. Will calculated a saving of 200-250kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare, emphasizing the broader environmental benefits accompanying the economic gains.

Long-Term Advantages

Entering his third year of drone utilization, Will's conviction in the long-term advantages of this technology is evident. With consistent nitrogen savings and improved efficiency, the drone-based system has become a valuable asset in his farming operations.

Beyond Nitrogen: Exploring Possibilities

While crop nutrition is the current focus, the future holds exciting possibilities for drone applications in agronomy.

Expanded Applications

Andrew Lowe envisions expanding drone applications to weed and disease control. The drone's ability to analyse crops multiple times a year allows for early detection of hotspots, paving the way for targeted interventions.

Accurate Weed Mapping

Weed mapping, a potential future development, promises more accurate results than satellite imagery. Drones can distinguish between crops and weeds, providing precise data for effective grassweed strategies.

Towards Predictive Systems

Ongoing developments include a wheat yield prediction system and predictive schemes for diseases like chocolate spot in beans. Drones could become integral in anticipating and managing crop conditions before they impact yield.

The Road Ahead: Legislation and Innovation

The tremendous potential of drone technology comes with the need for regulatory alignment. Agrii and Drone AG are actively collaborating with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish safe practices and operational strategies for the future.

Legislative Considerations

Jonathan Trotter, Agrii's lead pilot and technology trial manager, highlights the importance of aligning drone technology with existing legislation. The goal is to explore possibilities within regulatory frameworks, ensuring growers can maximize the benefits.

Future Scenarios: Larger Drones and Remote Operations

Looking ahead, the vision includes larger drones carrying substantial payloads, controlled remotely and operating with real-time data. The prospect of flying drones remotely from a central technology centre opens doors to enhanced efficiency.

Drones-in-a-Box Concept

A futuristic possibility involves deploying 'drone in the box' systems, allowing pre-programmed drones to autonomously carry out tasks. This concept streamlines operations, offering a glimpse into the potential future of drone-assisted agriculture.

The Journey Continues

As we continue to train agronomists and Crop Input Specialists in drone usage, our journey towards a more technologically advanced, efficient, and sustainable agronomy future unfolds.

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