The challenge with using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or "drones" in farming is less the technology and more the task of managing and acting on the vast volume of data it generates, a conference at Harper Adams University has heard.
"Data management is the most difficult part," according to Shropshire farmer and Nuffield scholar Andrew Williamson. "Data processing is best left to somebody else."
NIAB TAG crop physiologist Eric Ober explained how UAVs are helping the Cambridgeshire crop trials body to assess trial plots of wheat and other crops. "The task of getting from image to data needs to be streamlined," he said. "We now have huge amounts of data on both genotype and phenotype. The task for us is how to turn that into knowledge."
Mark Jarman, operations manager at data analysis firm URSULA Agriculture, said analysis software "should be a black box as far as the user is concerned. Right now it still requires expertise (to interpret)." He added: "You might be better off with an image from a plane or satellite. Different data sets inform different decisions. We even have a grower wanting to map the size distribution of his pumpkins across his fields."
Similarly, David Whattoff, development manager at precision agriculture service provider SOYL, said his team now integrates UAV data with that from other sources, ensuring that growers are "fully resourced".
"A day's flying might give you 15 gigabytes of data. We leave our computers to process it overnight," he added.
On the range of applications of the technology, he said: "Plant counting is useful for high-value crops like lettuces. One customer identified which workers planted at which densities this way.
"We can also calculate the financial penalty from under-performing areas and there is even scope for identifying individual weeds from their spectral signature."
Keith Geary, founder and managing director of technology development company G2Way, said the technology "is about to take off". He added: "Reality will kick in - some people will drop out - but in five years it will be an accepted piece of agricultural machinery."
But he pointed out: "The big problem in the UK is the weather. You can't fly a multi-copter in wind above 10 knots and the rain gives you bad reflectance."
Harper Adams visiting researcher and registered UAV pilot Jonathan Gill explained that compared with fixed-wing machines copters "are more viable just because of price". He said operating costs will fall as the process becomes more automated. But he stressed: "It's just a fancy toy until you process your data."
"This is a watershed moment. There are cases of misuse of the technology. We want to avoid undue regulation being imposed on the sector so we have to organise ourselves before someone else does. We are already working with BASIS to draw up a register of operators who have appropriate training and insurance."