AFBI flying high!

Alex Higgins (AFBI) holding AFBI's fixed-wing UAV.
Alex Higgins (AFBI) holding AFBI's fixed-wing UAV.
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The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has commissioned an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone, to assist in research on grassland productivity and the environment.

AFBI scientists have pioneered the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing technology in agri-environmental research in Northern Ireland in recent years. Using a drone as a research instrument is a logical extension of this work.

Image taken by AFBI UAV of an experimental forestry trial.

Image taken by AFBI UAV of an experimental forestry trial.

AFBI’s drone is equipped with GPS enabled multi-spectral cameras for use in remote sensing, and can be used to collect information on the spatial variation in biomass production in a range of crops. The ability of the drone to fly in a wide range of weather conditions means that crops can be monitored at various times through the growing season. The generation of accurate, high resolution digital models enables crop growth to be analysed with high spatial accuracy.

AFBI’s drone is a fixed-wing unit powered by a single electrical motor and flies at a cruising altitude of 100 m and at a speed of 40-90 km/h when deployed for experimental field work. It has flight time of up to 50 minutes on a single charge and is capable of capturing data from an area of 12 km2. These technologically sophisticated devices largely overcome the limitations of acquiring remotely sensed imagery in regions prone to frequent cloud cover such as Northern Ireland.

Alex Higgins, a senior scientist in AFBI’s Agri-Environment Branch, said: “It is clear that precision agricultural technology will have a critical role to play in helping to achieve the targets for sustainable expansion of the local agri-food industry as set out in the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s “Going for Growth” report. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to collect large amounts of accurate data from field studies will greatly assist in monitoring the growth of crops and their responses to fertiliser, pesticide and other inputs. This in turn will assist in developing methods for increasing crop growth with reduced inputs thereby decreasing production costs and the impact on the environment.”

The generation of accurate yield maps for grassland is a key step in the development of precision methods for improving productivity in the grassland-dominated farming sector of Northern Ireland. Delivery of these maps from imagery collected by drones has the potential to transform grassland farming and AFBI is playing a critical role in the development of this approach.