Banner Default Image

AgriCulture Live Podcast Transcript - Episode 11

​AgriCulture Live Episode 11 with guest Edwin Nichols from DroneAg
“How Drone Technology and Agri-Tech Is Revolutionising Agriculture & Farming”

Rebekah 00:01

Hello and welcome to AgriCulture Live. My name is Rebekah Shields, I'm a Director at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists and today joining me is Edwin Nicholls, who's Head of Sales at DroneAg, and today we're going to be talking about how drone technology is revolutionising agriculture and farming. So if you've got any questions, comments, anything you want to know, please pop them in the chat and we'll get to them when we can. So Edwin over to you, introduce yourself, where you work, what your company does?

Edwin 00:38

Hi, thank you for having me. I'm Edwin, I'm head of sales at DroneAg and we essentially produce drone software for agriculture. But we started off in our early stages teaching other people how to use other software on their farm and then realised there was a spot where actually we needed to produce something which was more suited for the agricultural market. So that's when we started creating our own software.

Rebekah 01:06

Fantastic. And so how do you guys stand out from your competitors?

Edwin 01:11

So essentially, a lot of drone companies out there and a lot of drone software is mainly based around mapping, so it's sort of like broad scale orthomosaic, where you take a couple of hundred images as you fly across a field, then you have to upload them to quite a powerful computer system and then stitch them into one large map which you can then look at. There's some benefits to this type of technology, but the main points is that it took a long time and, realistically, farmers that have quite a busy sort of schedule just didn't have the time to be devoting into it. So what we did is we changed it. All of the data handling through our app is automated. All the flight is automated, but essentially after a flight with our system you get a report back within about 10 minutes rather than a few hours, so it really means you can make actionable data whilst you're stood there on the side of the field.

Rebekah 02:06

So you can act quickly.

Edwin 02:08

Exactly that. Yeah, it's all about acting quickly and getting that data sort of where you need it as fast as possible.

Rebekah 02:14

Fantastic. So some people might want to get into this sector. But tell us about how you got into this sector. What's your background Edwin?

Edwin 02:24

Yeah, so I have agricultural background, my dad's an agronomist and has been for quite a long time, and I was always interested in agriculture. So I went to ag college and then studied agriculture at Reading University and, yeah, had a really great time. I was actually going to go into agronomy as well, and then my dad actually found an opportunity - an internship at drone ag when I was looking for a placement year, so I went and did my internship and started learning about the world of ag tech and it kind of went from there really, sort of when I finished university, did a harvest in Canada and then came back and started working full-time for drone ag and here I am still- there, because agri-tech's becoming a real up-and-coming thing now.

Rebekah 03:09

It's really getting spoken about a lot now, isn't it?

Edwin 03:12

Yeah, yeah. No, it's a really popular topic and I mean there's a lot of ways in which tech, can you know, really help us in our day-to-day jobs. So it's kind of about just getting people to to actually look into it and adopt it.

Rebekah 03:26

Fantastic. So what are drones for those watching or listening that don't know?

Edwin 03:31

Yeah, so it's an interesting question because a drone can actually be a lot of things. There's obviously - everyone looks at a drone, as you know a flying camera equipment. You can obviously get fixed wings, ones which look like planes, and you can get sort of quad copters which is what we use which obviously have four propellers and is what you'll see mostly, but drones can actually also be ground-based, so there's many different ones, but yeah, the ones that we use are quad copters and yeah, they're basically flying camera units.

Rebekah 04:03

So what percentage of the ag industry use drone technology?

Edwin 04:09

Yes, difficult to say that one I'd say that it's quite a large percentage of people in the agricultural industry will own a drone and they'll use it for other things, maybe even just taking nice photos or inspection of roofs and stuff like that, you know, doing jobs which are quite difficult to do on foot. The percentage of people that use them actually as an agricultural tool is a difficult one to work out really, because there's like a fine line between using it for pleasure and for work. But I think it's definitely increasing. And as legislation changes and we have, you know, different types of drones coming into it now - which do different jobs, it will only increase more.

Rebekah 04:51

So tell us about the different types. Me and you have spoken before. You know you've got drone spraying, generic, R&D...Just explain to those listening and watching so that they can get a better understanding.

Edwin 05:04

What I would sort of call standard drone use, I'd say, is the use of software like ours, like skippy scout, and then just an off-the-shelf drone, you know, quite cheap and cheerful. You're looking at around 450 to 500 quid for that drone package and that will sort of cover the bases in standard use. You then have R&D, that's when you generally use a slightly more expensive piece of drone kit and it usually has some sort of RTK module on it to make it a bit more accurate, but then also will sometimes include multi-spectral data as well and multi-spectral sensors. These are sort of like a way of sort of looking a bit more deeper into crop health, chlorophyll content, stuff like that.

Edwin 05:48

But it's sort of. It's still a bit of a grey area at the moment whether there's more benefits of the more expensive drone systems or of the cheaper ones and using AI and sort of image recognition. And then you've obviously got drone spraying, which again completely different systems and much more expensive. But yeah, they come with a whole list of benefits large carrying capacity, you know we've got drones now which will hold up to 50 kilos, 50 litres of you know, chemical that can be sprayed and they're being used all throughout Canada, Australia, the US and obviously they've been used in China for years. We're just starting to catch on now in Europe and they've got some authorisation in Hungary and the hope is that we can get that authorisation moved to the UK going forward. But we've got some plans to do some trials with drone spreading of slug pellets towards the end of this year. Yeah, which is looking hopeful.

Rebekah 06:48

So it can be something that just can go on, and on, and on.

Edwin 07:00

Yeah, there's sort of nothing. Yeah, no, it's kind of a limitless opportunity. And you know, if you include the ground-based drones as well, you know there's companies out there that create ground based sprayers for orchards and stuff too. You know the options really are limitless.

Rebekah 07:11

So it's a huge market. So people are going to be asking. The next question would be what are the benefits to using drone technology?

Edwin 07:20

Yeah, I mean there's many benefits. There's like - it's essentially just looking at your field from a different perspective. So what we do with our Skippy Scout software is we produce two different ways of looking at the field. One's called our Scout Spheres, which is like a high-level sort of field overview, which does like a 360 image of your field and lets you look at the field from a top down perspective, see patches which are growing better, what's growing worse, and it sort of gives you an idea of how that field reacts to certain things. And then we have our low-down photos as well, and those are the photos which we then run through our AI system. So essentially for that, what we can do is produce PDF reports giving you an idea of what's actually happening in the field and depending on crops, you know, we can do things like plant counts, green area index coverage, you know, weed percentage coverage, unhealthy crop all different sorts of metrics which can then be really useful in terms of creating actions for the fields.

Rebekah 08:21

And what's the benefit of having the technology not attached to machinery?

Edwin 08:27

Yeah, so it kind of. There is tech out there which is attached to machinery which you know. You can sometimes get sprayers which you can attach to cameras sorry, which you can attach to sprayers. The issue is obviously they only work when the sprayer travels over the field, which is only you know a few times in the year, depending on what crop you're growing travels over the field, which is only you know, a few times in the year, depending on what crop you're growing. With drones, it gives you the freedom to go out and collect that data whenever you want. And something that's a bit different satellite as well is the fact that you know if you've got cloud cover. It doesn't matter when you're using drones, because they're always going to be under that cloud cover. Um, the only thing you do have to watch out for is rain, which obviously in this year has not been beneficial.

Rebekah 09:05

Don't mention the rain! So what are the drawbacks of drones?

Edwin 09:13

Yeah, I mean, like I just mentioned, rain is basically the biggest drawback. Um, a lot of drone systems out there currently aren't waterproof. There are a lot of waterproof ones which are now coming out, which will obviously benefit the agricultural market moving forwards. And then you've just got wind speed is again. If you're in a very windy area, you might struggle using drones. Some people will argue that using drones are more time consuming. It really does depend on how you get on with technology and how you actually use the data. If you utilise the data, a lot of people find there's much more benefits in using it than the negatives. If you don't use the data, obviously, then it's a bit of a switch around. But yeah, most, most people tend to find more benefits than negatives.

Rebekah 10:02

So, you're a specialist at this, Edwin. So what do drones mean for the future? What's the impact?

Edwin 10:09

Yeah, I think it's a way of sort of relying more not just on people but on sort of automation and AI. So some people are absolutely terrified of AI and in some instances it is quite scary. But in terms of an agricultural landscape, I think it can only make it make us sort of more efficient and better in the long run. But the general idea for us is being able to do more accurate prescriptions using less chemicals in general, you know, reducing that sort of impact on the environment that everyone tends to slate agriculture for across the world. So for us there's only real benefits.

Rebekah 10:56

Definitely. So what is the next technology that could come past the drones, do you think?

Edwin 11:09

Yeah, so it's difficult to say - the market moves very quickly, and you know, one week we might not have anything there and then the next week there'll be something that's out, which sort of revolutionizes the landscape. I think drones are here to stay. I don't think there will be anything that directly overtakes what they do, just because they are so unique and you can use them for so many different tasks and jobs across the farm. But I definitely think there'll be more technology that comes out which will be just as good as drones -don't get me wrong, but I just don't think they'll be completely replaced as such.

Rebekah 11:41

And how do we rate as a country in terms of advances in agtech and stuff? Are we behind? Are we close to the front? Where are we?

Edwin 11:53

I would say at the moment we're a bit behind, not in terms of the want for it. The farmers in the UK are desperate to actually use the technology. It's more based around legislation and government legislation. So that's where we have the biggest issue with spraying drones at the moment. So people can't actually use spraying drones currently to spray anything that's regulated by the CRD, and that is because of, you know, aerial permits for dropping chemicals and you know there's some good points to that in the fact that you know they don't want to just let everyone run wild with drones and spray the landscape, and because you do have some few extra things you have to think about, to do with spray drift and stuff like that. But the fact that it's moving so slowly is well, it's putting us behind,


And you know is this when you look across the board Edwin in terms of agritech in general?

Edwin 12:53

I would say it's more based around drones. There's other agtech which won't have the same limitations that drones do, purely because they're not flying the fact that these are quite heavy systems that are flying makes them quite a big potential problem, especially when it comes into contact with people and whereas if you're talking about like an automated ground-based tractor, you probably have a lot less legislation.

Rebekah 13:14

So why is there so much legislation around them?

Edwin 13:18

Generally about public safety and, to be honest, a lot of the legislation is is good, it's good to be safe, just there are limits, obviously. There's safe, and then there's not being able to use anything and I think you have to kind of walk the line and at the moment we're very much on the safe side, whereas we kind of need to move a bit more and actually just start utilising. You know, even you can use drones on hillsides to spray off bracken and stuff where there aren't people anywhere near. I can understand not using them near towns and villages and stuff like that, but you know, we kind of need to make some sacrifices to get this technology being used.

Rebekah 13:58

Because there was some talk about Amazon delivering all our parcels wasn't there.

Edwin 14:02

Yeah, yeah, and those big companies are actually getting somewhere. They are doing a trial in the southwest for sort of auto-delivering of packages. I know the NHS has been using drones to deliver things like blood and other stuff to different places very quickly, which again are great uses of drones. But yeah, we need to start sort of moving - well faster in the ag sector rather than, you know, just letting everyone else reap the benefits. We need to sort of move that legislation over to agriculture - so that everyone can well, the world, the world's only going to want more food, isn't it?

Rebekah 14:38

So in terms of the impact - what does all of this mean for the future?

Edwin 14:47

Yes, it's an interesting on. For me., the benefit I can see is it opens up a lot of new job roles in the ag sector, which is always a benefit, obviously. I think in schools and when you're younger you sort of think about agriculture and all you really think about is either sort of animal farming or tractors, and you know that's great. But it's nice to know that even if you don't have an ag background, you can still get into agriculture, whether that's through software development, if you're interested in software development or, you know, even just becoming a drone pilot and going about it your own way. You know there's a lot of different ways in which you can actually access the agricultural market now without an ag background, which is very nice.

Rebekah 15:31

And some of this technology. You know these jobs didn't exist when we were in school. It's moving that fast, isn't it?

Edwin 15:38

Yeah, yeah, no, I sort of posted something the other day about someone in Australia that was looking for harvest students to actually fly spraying drones out there and I just thought, well, that just wasn't a thing when I actually left university because that would have been a great! A great job to go and do over in Australia for a season. Yeah, actually do some application.

Rebekah 16:00

But yeah and you know we speak a lot on this show, about the fact that you know we do need to attract more people to agriculture and I think that the agritech, drones, you know all the technology is a great way to promote it to the younger generation.

Edwin 16:19

Yeah, no, absolutely, and we do actually a lot of our, our customers will actually buy into the tech and you know there are some of them which will literally buy the drone, buy the software, and they'll hand that over to their children and they'll actually be the ones that do the flying around the farm. And you know it shows a different level of interest and because drones are so easy to get now and they're really easy to fly compared to what they used to be, you know a lot of younger people are having a lot of fun and it's you know when, when your job's fun and enjoyable, you know it makes you want to stay.

Rebekah 16:54

It's quite scary how they're better at technology than we are sometimes.

Edwin 16:58

Yeah it is. I mean, some of my best customers are younger than me and they will literally like - I'll start an onboarding call and they'll already be set up. They've already got fields in. They're ready to go yeah, so it's quite scary how quickly people can just cotton on to tech.

Rebekah 17:17

So why is agri-tech so important for us as a country?

Edwin 17:22

It's all down to efficiency again. You know we're feeding more people off of less land. Realistically, at some point we're going to have to change things up again. It's not ideal, but it's just the way that the agricultural scene is moving and agtech can be a big part of that and helping us. And whether that's using autonomous vehicles to help us cultivate and plant at times where we couldn't before, or whether it's drones helping us spray when we've got, you know, really bad weather and you can't actually get onto the fields, you know the different opportunities that agtech actually give the market are quite big.

Rebekah 18:04

It's going to be huge, isn't it Edwin.

Edwin 18:05

Yeah, yeah, no, it's exciting, exciting to be at the forefront of it, that's for sure.

Rebekah 18:08

Definitely, and we've had a comment here on LinkedIn. “The goal of technology is to improve productivity. Labour hours per hectare. How do you see productivity increase by drones in broadacre farming?”

Edwin 18:23

Yeah, so it's one of our main reasons really for actually creating the software that we did. Um, like I said before, most generic drone software is quite slow to use and, unless you're like a company that's dedicated to providing it as a service, generic farmers don't really have the time to do it and utilise that tech. So our software, kind of gives the ability for people to do that which have tighter time constraints, and you know it's all about covering the hectares and the acres much quicker, basically, and still getting that same amount of data you need as if you're walking it. You know, the idea from our software is we are a crop walking tool and if we can do that faster and save people more time in their crop walking, then that's ideal.

Rebekah 19:13

So what's the government doing in terms of supporting the industry on the agricultural technology side?

Edwin 19:20

Yeah, so there are now some grants out which are good they came out slightly earlier this year which give people the opportunity to actually buy into various different tech and get some money back from the government, whether that's they had some which is for specifically around variable rate and also for testing soil and stuff like that. And then there's also some which are for more direct pieces of machinery and that can be linked to autonomous machinery and stuff like that too. So they are actually starting to actually help the agricultural market access it. Um, and especially with grants and stuff for companies like us, we do quite a lot of grant funded projects and that can be anything from R&D work all the way to standard ag work, and the government do tend to support it through, you know, things like Innovate UK and many other sort of grant funding platforms out there.

Rebekah 20:13

And do you think they do enough?

Edwin 20:20

I do think they do enough in terms of grants and giving funding. I'm not sure if they're quite doing enough in terms of pushing legislation. Obviously, legislation is always going to be slow, it's never going to be a quick process, but I mean, since we started in 2017, we were always saying our drone spraying is going to be next year, and here we are still saying a similar, similar story. So we are actually seeing some movement now, which is, you know, a big change. They're getting a lot of pressure from you know, companies like DEFRA and definitely the Forestry Commission, that everyone's wanting to use drones and agriculture for spraying in certain situations where you know it's either not safe or not good for people to do it. So, yeah, there is a bigger push now.

Rebekah 21:06

And there's a comment here from Minnie Chisel on LinkedIn “Has there been specific development in software for livestock management using drones that you're aware of, especially in large roaming pastures such as Australia and the US?”

Edwin 21:23

Yeah, yeah, so I actually speak to a company. They're called Beefree Agro. They have, essentially, it's almost like the carbon copy of our technology, but for livestock. So, instead of, you know, scouting crops, they will actually scout livestock and they can do sort of large animal counts. They can do fence checks, trough checks, stuff like that. So, yeah, there is technology out there, based around drones and I know that they are very active in the US and also South America - obviously, areas where they have quite large cattle operations. So, yeah, have a look into those guys if you're interested in livestock.

Rebekah 22:01

Thanks, Edwin. And so if there's people watching and they want to get into this industry. They might not be from a farming background. What can they do? Where can they start?

Edwin 22:12

Yeah. So if it kind of depends on what aspect you're wanting to get into, obviously, if you're wanting to get into working in sort of agtech companies, then I guess you've just got to look for those, look for those openings. Uh, the easiest way to actually get into these companies is, like, like I did, through internships. You might not get paid, you might get paid a small amount, but it's always about getting that foot in the door and working your way up the tree. Really. But if you're wanting to obviously provide services and stuff like that, a lot of agtech companies will offer, you know, a reduced rate for a smaller contractor. You know, test the waters, see how you get on, see if you find new customers, and then have the option to expand at a later date when, when you've actually, you know, got that main client base. But yeah, there's quite a few different ways into it I’d say.

Rebekah 23:01

And do you think that you know the industry is open to people from non-farming backgrounds?

Edwin 23:07

Oh, absolutely. I'd say half of our team doesn't have a farming background, majority of them are obviously in the development side of things, and then what's good is that they also then learn quite a lot about agriculture when they actually work for us, because obviously we're always talking about agriculture. Most of our sales team has an agricultural background and our CEO obviously has his own family farm, so it's a good way to sort of work for an agtech company and also learn some bits about agriculture on the way.

Rebekah 23:39

OK, and we've got a comment from Tom Ellis. Hi Tom. “What is the battery life on the drones? Is this something that restricts you when operating them on farms?”

Edwin 23:49

Yeah, so we have a sort of mixture of battery life. It does depend on the drone system. On average, it tends to be around half an hour, but what we're seeing now is quite a big push into longer battery life as we improve our tech, and DJI now offer drones which have a 46 minute battery life, so they're always going up. I don't think it will ever be a big problem for us because, as we know, tech moves very quickly and you know, as the technology moves for electronic cars and stuff like that, it will also move for drones and everything else which requires batteries. So I don't see it as being a huge problem.

Rebekah 24:27

Excellent. So what do you think are the biggest issues that are going to come up for agriculture going forward, Edwin?

Edwin 24:37

It will probably be based around restrictions on chemical usage and many other things under the sun that will probably get restricted to use, and you know that'll be where drone application and stuff like that. You know precision application really comes into it. You know, being able to prove why you're putting something in a certain part of the field, which is all backdated with reports is only beneficial. Obviously, with our system, you can keep these reports and look at them, you know, four years in advance if you really want to, and you can use that as a way of proving why you've done certain things.

Rebekah 25:20

Excellent, and so I think that has covered everything. I can't see any more new comments. What a great discussion, Edwin. I really appreciate you being here. I know there's so many people that are interested in agtech at the minute, so it was really good to have your input today. Thank you everyone for watching and listening, and thank you again, Edwin. Keep following us on AgriCulture live. We've got some great new discussions coming up in a few weeks time. If you have got an interesting topic in agriculture that you would like to talk about, please get in contact with me via Agricultural Recruitment Specialists, which is I'm sure that if you've got any questions on drones, Edwin would be more than happy to help. If you would like to hear more on new issues and topics within the agricultural and farming industry, you can follow us on various channels, including Spotify, YouTube, apple podcasts. Just look up AgriCulture Live. So over to you, Edwin, would you like to say goodbye?

Edwin 26:32

Yes, thank you very much for having me and thanks for listening. And yeah, if anyone's got any questions, they can send us an email and you can find our website on the bottom banner down there if you want to look more into skippy scout.

Rebekah 26:45

Excellent - thanks, Edwin, and thanks everyone for watching and goodbye.

Cta Default Image
businessmen walking through a dairy farm

Looking for


businessman shaking hand at interview

Looking for