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Boosting British agriculture with drones: the new opportunities

November 29, 2021
Insight

The UK agricultural sector should seize the opportunities to harness drone technology. This will enhance profitability, aid sustainability and help directors of agribusinesses to fulfil their legal obligations.    

The sector needs to evolve to combat the challenges from producers in Australia and New Zealand as post-Brexit trade deals kick in. There is no immediate threat from the American megafarms, given the Biden administration’s lack of enthusiasm to negotiate a trade agreement with the UK, but the British food industry should take steps to become match fit in readiness for any such deal in the future.

Businesses in the sector will also come under growing pressure from Parliament and consumers to ensure good animal husbandry, product traceability from farm to fork and increasingly rigorous environmental standards.

The National Farmers’ Union aims to make British agriculture carbon neutral by 2040, and global agreements at the COP 26 conference in Glasgow will increase the scrutiny of the business operations of all sectors.

Directors of companies in the agricultural sphere must fulfil their statutory duties under the Companies Act 2006 and they cannot focus solely on maximising the bottom line. They must also consider the likely consequences for various stakeholders, including employees, customers and communities. They should also take into account the impact on the environment and the reputation of the company.

Managers of large food companies will also face pressure from institutional investors such as pension funds to ensure that their environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards reflect the higher standards demanded by consumers and activists. The remuneration of senior executives will increasingly be tied to stringent ESG criteria and company boards will need to keep the market abreast of  progress in their annual reports and accounts.    

Against this backdrop, it is notable that agribusinesses are making increasing use of drones for purposes such as:

- gathering data to aid crop monitoring

- using high-resolution drone images to gauge the fertility of crops, enabling reductions in fertiliser use and identifying problems such as inefficient irrigation systems

- agricultural mapping of uneven or large fields, saving the need for hazardous and time-consuming inspections on foot

- gathering data to allow pests and diseases to be spotted early

- external inspections of solar panels or roofs of farm buildings

- internal inspections of areas, such as silos, within warehouses or manufacturing facilities  

Businesses should be looking to use drones not simply for standalone tasks but instead as part of their overall strategies to exploit technology, data and images. This will drive efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, avoid the need for workers to perform some risky tasks and respond to the ESG agenda which is the focus of so much boardroom attention.

UK food enjoys a high reputation for quality, and farms are a vital part of the British countryside and ecosystem. After the challenges of Brexit and covid, there is scope for the agricultural sector to become bigger and better, and many businesses are already benefiting from the use of drones as they work to seize these new opportunities.

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