Research is ongoing in a Teagasc, UCD and DCU collaboration on the effectiveness of using drone technology to assess grass covers, with the findings to date showing promising results for farmers, according to the senior Teagasc research officer working on the trials Deirdre Hennessy.

VistaMilk, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) dairy research centre, is funding the drone technology trials aimed at testing the accuracy of aerial grass measuring.

The trials could lead to the eventual development of "swarms" of drones being sent to cover large areas of grassland, aiding grassland management by providing farmers with more information on the grass growth and sward composition of their paddocks.

“Farmers are constantly walking their fields monitoring grass growth, paying particular attention to its yield, composition and its grazing suitability,” said Hennessy.

“This is very labour intensive and time consuming, and the research that VistaMilk is funding is designed to provide them with that information more easily and quickly.

“Image-analysing, machine-learning algorithms will work with pictures captured by drones – and even satellites in the future,” she explained.

Drone ‘swarms’

While the current research is focused on farm-level data, future developments could see grass covers assessed by a flock of drones that could allow for county-wide information to be provided in real time.

“We can theoretically look at sending out drone swarms that will return their information to a base in a matter of minutes, giving farmers in a whole county the results that will allow them to make better business decisions while farming more sustainably,” Hennessey continued.

“I personally think that would be some achievement and a sight to see, if and when it becomes viable.

“For now, we will continue to prove that our drone-captured imaging algorithms work and will leave the scaling up to the next generation of researchers that are following closely behind.”

Work ongoing

Hennessy argued that the results of the research will allow farmers to make more informed decisions and improve grass utilisation, subsequently reducing the need for concentrate inputs.

Further work is still needed, she said, to package the grass-measuring technologies into a form that could be easily used by farmers in the day-to-day operation of their farm enterprises.

“Knowledge of how your grass is growing and what else is in your paddock, such as clover, can make a huge difference to a farm’s profitability and sustainability,” the researcher went on.

“The imaging analysis work that is ongoing in VistaMilk and with our partners will make the process more accurate and automated, thereby making it easier for the farmer to make timely and correct decisions on how to manage their fields.

“The ultimate goal is to create an app that uses a combination of physical observations, weather predictive models and automated grass imaging that will save time and money for the farmers.

“While we are not there quite yet, the future is just around the corner,” Hennessy said.