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Drone training academy will help farmers and researchers monitor crops from the air

The Aerial Academy director Elliott Corke flying a drone. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The Aerial Academy director Elliott Corke flying a drone. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2016

A training school for drone pilots has been launched in East Anglia which could help the region’s farmers gain a high-tech advantage in their crop monitoring.

Crop scientists will be trained by The Aerial Academy to use drones to monitor their field trials. Left to right, Dr Graham Hood, Elliott Corke from The Aerial Academy and Dr Ji Zhou. Picture: ANTONY KELLY Crop scientists will be trained by The Aerial Academy to use drones to monitor their field trials. Left to right, Dr Graham Hood, Elliott Corke from The Aerial Academy and Dr Ji Zhou. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

To use a drone as part of a commercial activity, an organisation needs to hold a permission for commercial operation (PFCO) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

In order to get that, pilots need to pass three competencies – an aviation theory test, a practical flight assessment, and the ability to develop basic operations procedures.

The Aerial Academy, based at Honingham Thorpe outside Norwich, has received its accreditation this month to deliver all three aspects of the course.

Elliott Corke, one of the three founding directors, said the firm was an extension of his HexCam company which was already supplying drone footage and aerial photography for clients on the ground.

But the former marine biologist and science teacher said education was the best way to maximise the potential of the technology for commercial operators, including farmers and agronomists.

“When I came into the market, there was only one training organisation in the West Country and nothing in East Anglia,” he said. “The machines are relatively easy to fly and you can buy one anywhere, but what people are not so aware of are the regulations around their flying. We can now take them all the way through from never having flown to the point where they can be issued a PFCO from the CAA. If you are operating a drone commercially or as part of a commercial operation in UK airspace, you need one of those.

“You gain an appreciation of where you fit within the wider air traffic control. Here, we are in the Norwich control zone, and within a few hundred metres of the air ambulance helipad. If you don’t understand that, you could be in big trouble.

“It is about learning to control your drone safely, learning how fail-safes work, and how to set up the drone for particular purposes;. It is learning about how to get the optimum imagery out of your drone for your purposes, and how to fly your drone automatically using GPS waymarking.”

Mr Corke said budding pilots should consider what they want from the imagery before making an impulse purchase on a drone.

“The mistake people make is they get drawn into buying the drone before they think what their output is,” he said. “You would not buy a tripod before you bought a camera. But people see this cool thing and buy it first, so they are starting at the end.

“They are not thinking what do my clients need, what imagery do I need to give them, so what camera do I need and therefore what kind of drone should I fit it to? They have got to consider what their output will be before they buy the drone.”

The safety aspect of the training is particularly important, said Mr Corke, with the rising number of drones potentially increasing the risk of mid-air collisions. One such near-miss happened in September 2014 when a helicopter crew flying into Norwich had to take evasive action when confronted with an unmanned aerial vehicle an estimated 50m away from them above the Rackheath Industrial Estate.

“I am all about education,” said Mr Corke. “There are people doing dangerous things. You don’t want to be responsible for crashing a helicopter with 12 people on board. And we don’t want our industry to be damaged because people are doing things that are dangerous and irresponsible.”

Drones for crop research

Among the recipients of The Aerial Academy’s training are crop scientists at the Norwich Research Park.

Drones are used as part of an integrated in-field system to monitor wheat trials alongside 3D laser scanners, weather stations and soil sensors to assess plant growth traits and how they react to environmental factors including temperature, rainfall and wind.

Dr Ji Zhou works both with teams at the John Innes Centre carrying out field trials and crop monitoring, and at the Earlham Institute where the results are analysed via complicated computer modelling.

“From our perspective we use technology to solve questions that cannot be solved in a traditional way,” he said.

“If we don’t know how to collect data, these are no more than nice pictures. We want to extract useful information from it.

“The questions here at JIC are about the crop management system and the growth stages so we know how to optimise the timing for growers to spray chemical or do irrigation. The reason we fly drones is to do this dynamic measurement of adaptive traits. It could be how green they are, with the NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index).

“That is a value that lots of people can use. The other reason we fly drones is to understand gene traits that control yield production.”

Dr Zhou said one of the major advantages of the training was giving his team the knowledge of how to use GPS waypoints to make accurate repeat flights on exactly the same route, so changes can be compared and the analysed.

“I think Elliott’s input has allowed people to understand how to fly the drone and give us some ideas as to how to speed up that work,” he said.

“The drone is an important component in the integrated monitoring, but for deep phenotyping we want to fly the drone over and over again on the same field to know how they are growing and how they are changing. It is really important.”

The drone code:

All flyers of UAVs or drones, whether commercial operators or hobbyists, are required to follow rules to protect the safety and privacy of people on the ground:

• Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields.

• Use your common sense and fly safely – you could be prosecuted if you don’t.

• Maximum flight height is 400 feet.

• UAVs must be kept within line of sight at all times, at a maximum distance of 500m.

• UAVs must not be flown within restricted areas without permission of air traffic control.

• Drones fitted with cameras must not be flown within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events.

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