August 8, 2008

Unmanned Aircrafts Used to Monitor UK Farmlands

In a recent research project between tech firm Qinetiq and Aberystwyth University, an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was sent into the sky in hopes that one day the technology will be compatible with monitoring farmland in the UK.

The plane crossed over fields in England and Whales while gauging the nitrogen levels in soil, to determine whether fertilizer was needed.

"You don't need to put pilots in a vehicle where you are only collecting data, providing you can do it safely," said Jonathan Webber, the program leader of Qinetiq UAV Services.

"That's going to drive savings in weight, which will drive savings in fuel costs. So where you see normal routine data-gathering operations by manned aviation today, I would see that gradually being transferred over to UAVs in the next 20 years."

However, overcrowded British skies remain to be a key problem, and the Civil Aviation Authority has yet to decide just how UAVs will fit into the busy air corridors.

The Qinetiq-Aberyswyth project used a small plane with a wingspan of 2.5m and a weight of less than 7kg to draw field maps near Hereford and Aberporth.

Each plane was equipped with a batter that allowed it to say in the air for about an hour.

"Control of the vehicle is completely autonomous, pre-programmed," said Mr Webber. "It has a back-up so we can take control of the vehicle if we need to and fly it manually."

The data sent down from the UAV was used to build up a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for the surveyed land.

"It tells you the difference between 'green crops' that are photosynthesizing and bare ground," explained Alan Gay, a senior research scientist at Aberystwyth University

"The more dense the crop, the less fertilizer you need to apply."

"We know you can get good maps of this sort from manned aircraft but it's so difficult to get an aircraft to the field you need it in, at the time you need it there; and it's also very expensive," said Mr Gay.

"UAVs can operate much more flexibly."

While unmanned aircrafts are more and more common in the battlefield, their civil and commercial applications are becoming more attractive as well.

Mr. Gay said the UK team would like next to use remote sensing to gather vegetation information on upland farms, to advise livestock-holders where best to graze their sheep.

"We can see UAVs extending a long way because we know that it's useful for monitoring forestry and detecting disease in crops," he said.

"We can see quite a sea-change in farming, to it being based on real measurements rather than being based on some guesswork."