Drones are widely recognised as a useful tool in arable farming. But how to buy the right drone for the job? Here’s a grower’s guide to buying a drone.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – have come a long way since the first commercial use in Japan during the 1980s, with a plethora of systems and potential applications now available to suit all budgets.
Several hundred manufacturers supply equipment to this fast-moving global market, where drones can cost anything from £50 to tens of thousands.
There are plenty of potential uses for drones in agriculture, so before buying anything it is essential to be clear what it is needed for, as this determines the type – and likely cost – of the system required.
Any drone is a means of transporting a camera or other sensor capable of surveying crops remotely. While it is possible to buy the drone and camera separately, many are sold together. Jack Wrangham from mapping and spraying firm Drone AG believes buying a ready-to-go integrated system can save a lot of hassle, even if it is slightly more expensive.
There may be compatibility issues when buying equipment separately, and some drones do not allow the camera to be changed, he says.
Mr Wrangham also advises farmers to be wary of cheap “multi-spectral” cameras that use a single modified lens to detect different light wavelengths.
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A true multi-spectral camera has separate sensors and lenses for every spectrum of light measured, to give much more accurate results.
“The difference can be £300 versus £3,000, but a single modified lens may not give much more detail than a standard RGB camera.”
Camera types and how they can be used
While it is possible to buy a recreational drone for around 60 dollars, farmers may need to spend 400-500 dollars or more for a reliable system with an RGB camera capable of good aerial imaging and video recording. Such imagery can highlight field problems associated with poor drainage, weed infestations or pest damage.
More complex crop imaging – such as measuring green leaf area, disease or weed identification – requires more sophisticated (and expensive) multi-spectral or thermal imaging cameras, typically costing several thousands of dollars. This in turn means you will need a more robust, reliable and accurate drone.
Drones can be divided into 3 main categories based on their drive mechanisms: multirotor (multicopter), fixed wing and hybrids (wings and motors). Multicopters are the most common, accounting for about 95% of the UK agricultural drone market alone, according to Chris Eglington, Norfolk farmer and co-founder of UAV spraying company Crop Angel. Cheap multicopter models are easy to fly and can be operated solo, whereas fixed-wing drones fly faster and longer, but often require help to launch and spotters on the ground to maintain visual contact, he says. Multicopters typically have either 4 motors (quadcopters), 6 motors (hexacopters) or 8 (octocopters) motors.
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Mr Eglington says those with 6 or 8 motors can usually keep flying when 1 or even 2 motors fail, but tend to be bigger, heavier and more expensive. Many quadcopters fall to ground when a motor fails. However, some new models include software that puts the drone into a spin, giving the pilot more chance to land it, he says.
Key features to consider when buying include:
The cost of the computer software needed to analyse data collected by any drone must be considered before buying. Prices vary considerably depending on the data being processed and whether you buy a package outright or opt for a monthly subscription. For example, a free version of the popular DroneDeploy software can be used for stitching together images to generate colour maps. Advanced packages for 3D mapping or vegetation indexes cost $ 100-$ 300 per month. Other advanced software can cost several thousands of dollars.
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Also consider what support is available and what internet connection is required, especially if large data files need to be transferred to cloud-based systems, says Mr Wrangham. In particular, check your upload speed and any data allowances for uploads set by your internet provider. Many contracts offering unlimited downloads still cap uploads, and exceeding these limits can be expensive, he warns.
Buying software outright may be one solution, although advanced packages can require significant processing power, which may be beyond some farm computers. Another option is to send data to a specialist company for analysis. This saves paying for software, but again requires a good internet connection because of the large files involved, says Mr Eglington.