Lawmakers must get the balance right in any new regulations to control the use of drones, with the technology capable of playing a crucial role in the future of British farming, according to industry figures.
Groups representing farmers and landowners believe current rules around the use of drones are inadequate, citing privacy concerns and the risk of livestock worrying.
But while recreational use of the technology should be better controlled, they are urging the Government not to inhibit commercial use as this could be the key to greater efficiencies for their businesses.
The Department for Transport is consulting industries on proposed new measures to govern the use of drones, including the mandatory registration of new drones that weigh more than 250 grams, a theory test for users, increased penalties for misuse and new criminal offences to deter misbehaviour.
Drone use has risen among farmers in recent months, and while the Government’s consultation has been welcomed, there are calls for the regulations to be eased for agricultural uses.
Harper Adams University has been working in conjunction with the RAF to pave the way for on-farm use of drones that can apply fertilisers in a targeted way on farms.
Jonathon Gill, a mechatronics teaching assistant at the university, said: “We have been approached by farmers requesting an affordable solution to inaccessible areas on their land. They see spray drones as the answer.
“Currently, legislation does not allow the application of chemicals by a drone, however we are working with organisations to dissolve these barriers, with safety in mind at all times.”
Mr Gill will be discussing the issue at the Cereals Event in Lincolnshire in June where drone technology will be demonstrated live to farmers. The event’s marketing manager Natalie Reed said the technology was increasingly widespread in the farming sector.
“Arable producers are increasingly turning to drones as a more efficient way of viewing large crop areas to identify weeds and crop stress levels, estimate yields, and potentially even apply sprays,” Ms Reed said.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has responded to the Department for Transport’s consultation. It wants the Government to introduce compulsory registration and insurance of drones, and for recreational users to need the landowners’ permission before flying over private land.
CLA solicitor Andrew Gillett said: “The use of drones both commercially and for recreation is growing fast. The sector has huge potential to benefit a wide range of industries, particularly in agriculture.
“However, it is vital that regulations keep pace with this change. Our members have concerns with recreational users flying surveillance drones of up to 20kg over their houses, gardens and fields which can cause a very real feeling of invasion of privacy.”
The National Farmers’ Union said its members had already seen the first instances of sheep worrying caused by use of drones by members of the public but that the use of the technology for crop applications had the potential to keep British farming “at the cutting edge and internationally competitive”.