By Eimear Dodd Journalism MA student, @TheCity_Dublin editor, @Irish_TechNews

The possible applications of drone technology was discussed at a recent seminar held at UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science.

‘Using drones with spectral imaging for better crop management decisions’ was the final lunchtime seminar of the 2016/2017 academic year. These research seminars are organised by the School of Agriculture and Food Science as a means of encouraging discussion among attendees about topics that fall within its research areas.

The agricultural sector faces many challenges in the coming years. Some of the most pressing involve food security and access to drinking water. Innovation and technology could support the development of sustainable systems of food production.

The format of the research seminar was a joint presentation by Professor Kevin McDonnell and David Kelly of Capturing a World Ltd.

Professor McDonnell, a senior lecture at the School of Agriculture, opened the seminar by outlining how drones might be used in the agricultural sector as a delivery system for sensors and other monitoring equipment. Professor McDonnell’s research interests include green technologies, agricultural systems and crop production.

A greater use of sensors could make agricultural production more efficient. A drone could cover a larger area of land quicker than manual methods .If equipped with appropriate sensors, the drone could carry out crop and livestock inspections.

David Kelly of Capturing a World outlined the main differences between a fixed wing and a multi rotor drone. The company uses a fixed wing RPAS flight system to carry out multi-spectral imaging. The fixed wing drone was selected due to its comparatively higher flight time.

While people are familiar with aerial photography of farms and farm labour, part of the research seminar focused on the broader applications of drones within the agricultural sector. There was a discussion about how multi-spectral imagery could assist with mapping land and crop counts.

The seminar highlighted several possible issues with the use of drones by the agricultural sector. The first is data output and processing time. Between 8 and 20 GB of data can be generated from just one flight. This data then has to be processed and delivered to the farmers in a useful format.

The second issue is the question of data ownership and retention. Professor McDonnell highlighted that data ownership is becoming an issue where smart technology is used in agriculture. While tech companies might prefer to have complete ownership of any data generated, farmers may not be happy to relinquish all the data acquired during flights above their property. Any model must balance the concerns of all parties. Additionally, regulators and other agencies may also be interested in this information.

However, once the question of data ownership has been resolved, the information could be used to develop predictive models to assess crop health and to estimate the likely yield. This may reduce the risks of forward selling since farmers would have a better sense of how much produce would be available at harvest time. Predictive models are being trialled in the United States and Australia but Ireland’s more unpredictable weather means that drones are still in the research stage here.

It appears that drone technology will have a wide variety of applications across many areas of the economy in the coming years. Its value for agriculture may be very significant.

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