Scientists from Aberystwyth University’s new biosciences centre are using a small unmanned aircraft equipped with sensors to fly over farmland taking images of fields and crops.
The researchers at the Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) envisage that the airborne images will help farmers with a range of problems, including how much fertiliser to use on their fields.
IBERS is working in partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Geography and Earth Services and QinetiQ, which runs the West Wales Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Centre at Aberporth. The so-called U-MAP project is supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.
One of the main aims of the project will be to use the technology to help manage the amount of nitrates used on the land – they are among the most serious causes of pollution in farming, but are also vital for crops.
A sophisticated new computer analysis technique applied to the images taken from the aircraft will show how much nitrogen there is in the soil and in vegetation, which crops need more fertiliser and where excess nitrogen is being left in the ground.
‘This will help farmers target their use of costly fertiliser, make sure they don’t use too much and help the environment by cutting back on nitrate run-off,’ said Alan Gay, project manager from IBERS.
‘Another early application will be to help farmers in the uplands to see where the best grazing is for their animals. This can be very difficult to assess at ground level.’
Scientists are checking the accuracy of the technique by comparing images from fields in Herefordshire and near Aberystwyth with their findings on the ground.
‘These first results are very promising,’ added Gay. ‘We would hope to see commercial applications of this technology within two or three years.’