Could drones launch an aerial revolution in crop spraying?

Matthew Kealey (left) and Chris Eglington of Crop Angel - a Norfolk-based company claiming to supply

Matthew Kealey (left) and Chris Eglington of Crop Angel - a Norfolk-based company claiming to supply the UK's first crop-spraying drone. - Credit: Archant

A Norfolk firm has secured the exclusive UK rights for a crop-spraying drone – an innovation which the company's founder hopes could be the first step in an aerial agricultural revolution.

Imagine a farming landscape with no tramlines in the emerging crops – because all the nutrients and pesticides have been delivered from the skies.

That's the ultimate dream scenario for a Norfolk business which claims to have the UK's only crop-spraying drone.

Crop Angel, based at Letton, near Shipdham, has secured an exclusive agreement with a Chinese manufacturer to distribute its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), adapted to carry and apply agro-chemicals, in the UK and Ireland.

Managing director Matthew Kealey hopes this could be the start of an aerial revolution which could give rise to squadrons of drones carrying out precision spot-treatments, rather than relying on ground-based blanket applications.

That futuristic vision is a long way behind the horizon – but, with farmer Chris Eglington also involved in the development of the company, work is already under way on new innovations and technologies which could improve the early model's design.

Managing director Matthew Kealey said: 'We understand that they are the only spray drones currently in the UK if not Europe.

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'There are many companies offering pictures and mapping services but this is the first drone in the UK to actually do something practical. We see the future of mapping drones declining as satellite technology improves allowing them to penetrate the cloud cover.

'I'm from a farming family and Chris is a farmer, and we recognised the practical application for this.

'At the moment, it can spray a maximum of one acre. Further down the line, imagine if there were no tram-lines in a field. You could get 10-15pc of your farm back.

'The time will come when you open the farm gate, do your cultivations and sow your crop, and then close the gate again. All the sprays and micro-nutrients could be delivered by drones. It is true precision farming and we need to be delivering products with low application rates and targeting them where they are required. It has got to be better for everybody in terms of the cost and the environmental footprint.'

The long-term development goal is for a satellite or mapping drone to provide coordinates of a patch of weeds, for example, which could be downloaded to the UAV sprayer so it could accurately spray the problem area.

Mr Kealey, who is originally from a farming family in Yorkshire, is a qualified agronomist and his other business, Matrix Crop Care, supplies farm advice and agrochemicals.

He was contacted via social media by the Chinese supplier of the drone crop sprayer, prompting a flight to Shanghai and a six-hour drive to Wuhu to meet the manufacturers and secure the distribution deal.

The first model arrived a few days before the LAMMA trade show in Peterborough earlier this month, where it was demonstrated to a UK audience for the first time.

'We were swamped for two days at the show,' said Mr Kealey. 'A lot of growers were interested, particularly the big fruit growers in the south of England who could see an application for orchards and hops.

As well as spot-spraying in arable fields, other potential markets include bracken control in upland areas, and the management of golf courses, motorway embankments and forestry areas.

Mr Kealey said agreements are already in place with agrochemical manufacturers, approving use of their products through Crop Angel's UAV sprayers.

And the company is working closely with the CRD (Chemical Regulation Directorate) to grant approval for UAV to be classed as an air assisted sprayer, and it is seeking CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) approval for the use of larger drones over 20kg.

The company's marketing strategy is likely to be a regional franchise network, targeting established agricultural contractors.

The service will include supply of the UAV, technical and agronomic support, putting the franchisee through their pilot's licence and operator's course.

'It is about due diligence,' said Mr Kealey. 'There are a lot of regulations and responsibilities around drone flying and if someone came to us with the wrong attitude it would be a 'no'.'

The drones' capacity ranges from six to 18 litres, and they have a flight time of 8-15 minutes. The larger 15-litre model costs about £15,000.

The spraying height can be controlled at 1-1.5m above the target area, and the nozzles are positioned below the rotors, with the downdraft aiding penetration into the crop.

UAV pilot Chris Eglington, who farms at Letton, has been working with a qualified aircraft engineer on ways to improve the design, including the addition of software which will allow the drone to fly pre-set routes.

'From my point of view, we have always embraced technology on this farm,' he said. 'We have precision farming, but also we are fully into controlled traffic, and we use a lot of sensing technology already on our machines, so this is a natural progression, bearing in mind that I have flown my own drone for some time.

'We are adding this box of tricks which will allow it to fly a pre-set pattern – but still under the control of the pilot.

'I think we need to be developing new models now. The biggest threat we have is that these things are developing so fast and we need to make sure we stay ahead of it.

'We will develop another drone with six propeller, so it will have that built-in redundancy. We shall use Lightbridge technology which allows much more information to pass between the controller and the drone. We shall most likely have a very small camera on the front and if it sees an obstacle it will go around it. More importantly, we can use it to follow the horizon which will make flying at a constant height much easier.

'The hydraulic nozzles on these drones is old technology. We are using much more modern technology on our sprayers in agriculture in this country. This is a start. It gives us an idea but we want to be putting modern spraying technology onto the drones.'

Civil aviation viewpoint

Businesses wanting to operate a UAV for commercial aerial work must get permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

CAA spokesman Richard Taylor said the rising popularity of drones meant there were now 1,500 permitted commercial operators in the UK, mostly for filming and photography.

He said there were no specific regulations regarding activities such as crop spraying – but a special permission would be required to allow larger drones weighing more than 20kg to be flown in open air space.

'We are aware of a specific request from Crop Angel, and I am not aware of any others for crop spraying until now,' he said.

'We are less interested in the specific application of drones than we are in the safety implications. We want to ensure that whatever they are being used for is being done safely. Commercial operators do require permission from us, and we require them to do some training with approved companies.

'If it is under 20kg there shouldn't be too many hurdles, but at the moment no device over 20kg can fly outside specific designated enclosed pieces of airspace without special permission. That is not to say it is a difficult process, but it will need to be done.

'The chances are that a machine capable of spraying a crop, with the added weight of the chemical, will be quite a big machine.

'We would not give permission if we thought there was anything dangerous about this operation. By its nature, it is happening in a very rural location and at a very low height.

'It is quite an obvious and sensible use of this type of technology. I am sure it will happen at some stage in the future, but it is up to the manufacturers to develop the technologies and for us as regulators to approve them where we can.'

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.