Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – A Bird's-Eye View In Agriculture

Farming Monthly National|March 2020

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – A Bird's-Eye View In Agriculture
UAV technologies are becoming more affordable, increasing the feasibility of their use within smaller-scale agricultural ventures.
David Cutress

Currently, the major focus of UAVs in agriculture is within the arable sector, with functionality in field mapping and crop assessment to improve yields.

There is currently an increasing amount of research being performed on utilising UAVs for livestock management and other precision farming integrations which could benefit farmers in the future.

What are UAVs?

The term unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) covers a range of different remotely or entirely autonomously piloted crafts which are often referred to as drones. UAV refers to both more traditional fixed-wing aircraft, and also single or multiple rotorcraft, such as quadcopters, hexacopters, and octocopters.

When considering a UAV for a particular use, it is important to consider the requirements for each application as specialised UAV are likely more suited to specific roles. For example, fixed-wing crafts can carry heavier payloads and can usually fly further and for longer. Alternatively, rotary-winged crafts have higher manoeuvrability and can be flown directly against the wind more efficiently as opposed to fixed-wing craft.

Whilst initially UAVs were heavily used and developed for scientific and military uses, they are becoming more widespread with roles in areas including: mapping, search and rescue, agriculture, cargo transport, photography/cinematography, and environmental management. There are even proposals to use them in emergency health treatment.

UAVs’ CO2 emissions when used to transport cargo have been assessed and are suggested, given the correct infrastructure, to be lower than current transport methods. As of February 2020, rotary based drones can be purchased with inbuilt high-quality cameras from as little as £369, making them far more accessible to hobbyist flyers. Companies are also working to develop new UAV to circumvent weight limits associated with drone registration restrictions in the UK.

UAV legislation and restrictions in the UK

Currently, UK legislation relating to UAV usage set out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) falls into two categories: regulations regarding crafts less than 20kg, and those concerning crafts over the 20kg limitation. Operation of larger craft over the 20 kg weight limit, is subject to standard UK Aviation regulations and individuals planning to pilot them must obtain specific authorisations and permissions from the relevant authorities.

For the lighter category (<20kg), the legislation is more specifically defined as they are less likely to cause airspace interference issues. Any craft weighing between 250g and 20 kg to be used recreationally, must be registered by an individual or an organisation (£9 annual cost); operators must pass an online test (and renew this every 3 years); and the craft must be labeled with the operator’s assigned ID. Any failure to comply with these legislations can lead to a fine of £1,000.

The CAA states that any business use of UAVs, regardless of size, is considered commercial. As such, commercial costs would be incurred when employing UAVs within the farming industry in the UK. (This parallels legislation in the US where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states that any type of agriculture UAV use must be considered commercial.)

In the UK, in order to obtain a commercial piloting license, an individual or organisation needs to gain ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’ (PfCO). Standard permissions allowing for commercial operations require a detailed operations manual and ‘National Qualified Entity’ (NQE) training (provided by a CAA approved trainer) to have been undertaken and passed (~£1,000). A fee must also be paid to the CAA per operator to register as a commercial pilot (£247) which is to be renewed annually (£130). Applicants must also have a compliant insurance policy (average cost between £600 - £1,000 annually). This leads to an initial cost of up to £2,247 with an annual cost thereafter of up to £1,130. In some instances landowners, over whose land noncommercial operators may be flying, may also specifically request a PfCO; one example being The National Trust.

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March 2020