Drones, those small and nimble Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are popping up everywhere: from airports and the White House lawn to tennis courts and nuclear power stations. Science is looking at positive uses for these miniature aerial work horses. A farmer and his drone working in partnership could make farming greener and cheaper in the future.

The UK’s Rothamsted Research institute and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council are running a field trial of an advanced eight-rotor, nine kilogramme model called the Octocopter in the fields of Hertfordshire of the UK. The drone uses special cameras to measure crop height and maturity throughout the season. At Rothamsted they have been carrying out the longest-running continuous agronomic field experiments in the world. For more than 100 years they have compared farm systems of fertiliser and pesticide effects on crop growth.

The researchers are currently recording experiments with the drone in an area of five hectares or 50,000 square metres.

“This year we have focused on monitoring crop height through the season and also crop maturity. Different wheat lines mature at different rates, and we regularly monitor this on the ground — this year we hope to have done it from the air,” said Andrew Riche of the Rothamsted Research institute.

The drone is a sophisticated scientific instrument for fast data capture from the farm. Some great panoramic views have been captured already as they have strapped a Go-Pro Hero 4 camera to the Octocopter. The drone also has a thermal infrared camera for capturing information about plant stress; and a near infrared camera is accurately capturing images to help measure and calculate crop growth.

In the future, analysis of these images could pinpoint areas for pesticide treatment or biological agents like natural predators. “I think we are a long way from seeing seeds or pesticides being applied by a UAV, however I think they have an important role in monitoring field experiments,” said Riche.

Farmers increasingly need to understand their input costs versus profits. In the UK, some wheat farmers use £80 (€109) of fertiliser per hectare (10,000 square metres), others £180 (€245). At what amount does this usage become a loss or profit?

Improved data visualisation from precision farming tools, such as the use of drones, will help farmers answer this question and extract useful data to benchmark against their own metrics and revenue calculations for deeper insights.

A farmer and his (or her) drone… and a dog may not be such an odd sight one day.

The longer feature story, which includes some scenic high-resolution images, Octocopter! Experimental drone for agricultural research was written by the BBSRC on the website medium.com.