Strip planting of ‘sentinel plants’ to detect and warn of pest attack, multispectral imaging to target crop protection, and the use of drones to monitor solar farm performance were some of the applications discussed at speakers at the first meeting of Agri-Tech East’s Remote Sensing and Monitoring Special Interest Group.
Farmers and producers joined delegates from electronic design companies and sensor developers to discuss the how sensing and monitoring technologies can exploited within the agri-food industry.
There is considerable pressure, both economic and legislative, for farmers and growers to reduce their inputs of agrochemicals. Early detection of crop stress or pest attack would allow more precise and timely application of pesticides.
Tony Peloe, Head of Export Sales at Delta-T Devices is co-chair of the ‘Remote Sensing and Monitoring SIG’, says that a new generation of low-cost sensors capable of operating for many years on a single battery are opening the way for new applications. In addition, new technologies developed for the military and aimed at detecting, identifying, quantifying, predicting and alerting can be repurposed.
He said: “Farmers are only too keen to adopt tools and practices that offer demonstrable benefit. Most farmers have historically been avid users of weather forecasts, and many now have their own weather stations so they are used to acting on data inputs. “Farmers, in fact all producers, face a myriad of technical, legislative, commercial, social and environmental challenges. Some of these can be met now with existing or recently introduced products, whilst others are waiting for the technology to catch up – which is where the Sensor SIG might fit in.
“Agri-Tech East is a welcome initiative and the SIGs are a fantastic way to get people from a range of backgrounds and interests to make contact, start conversations, and hopefully kick-start some collaborations.”
Rise of the drones
Part of the driver for the interest for monitoring is the emergence of very capable and keenly priced sensing platforms often based on drones and using familiar app style data display and analysis.
Elliott Corke from HexCam, one of three drone operators at the SIG, provides aerial photography via drone to farmers and research institutes. He has seen the new imaging systems as an opportunity to add extra value to the stills and video that he offers. “Multi-spectral cameras now make it possible to visualise weeds, such as blackgrass, and also to give an indication of the vigour and health of the crop.
“The technology is developing all the time but the important thing from my perspective is to understand what information would be the most useful to my clients. By bringing people together the SIG will help me to have those early conversations before I invest in new product developments.”
Farmers want business case
Jamie Lockhart from Honingham Thorpe Farm was one of a number of farmers and growers in the discussion, he commented that many farmers were using some type of remote sensing already and that where the technology was robust and the results merited the effort that they were keen to adopt new approaches. The issue was developing a strong enough business case based on field evidence.
Early warning by plants
The use of biological sensors was also discussed. Dr Mike Birkett from Rothamsted Research discussed the science behind companion planting and how growing ‘sentinel plants’ can provide the main crop with early warning of pest attack, He said: “Early onset of pest damage in crop plants is accompanied by production and emission of volatile organic compounds, even before normal and recognisable symptoms appear. This phenomenon can be exploited in portable detection systems to determine the health of the crop.
“Better understanding of the chemicals produced, or biomarkers as they are called, provides a terrific opportunity to develop new smart crop protection strategies. “The SIG being launched by Agri-Tech East provides just the right platform to foster new collaborations in pursuit of that goal.”
Words into action
Delegates collectively recognised the opportunity to work together to optimise the use of new sensor technology particularly the need to ‘ground truth’ technology with demonstration fields. Two of the farms represented offered land and sites to help with trials and there was further discussion of creating a network of test sites. With expertise such as software engineering, electronics design, drone operators, plant scientists already present, the SIG Is well-placed to move forward with sensing technologies ranging in scale from the millimeter to hectares.
The first meeting of the ‘Remote Sensing and Monitoring SIG’ was kindly hosted by Hethel Engineering Centre, Norwich with the support of South Norfolk Council, more meetings are planned to discuss collaboration opportunities.