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What Do Drone IP Rating Standards Mean for the Agricultural Sector?

by Simon Vogt, CCO, P2i

p2i agricultural drone

The drone market has experienced significant growth in recent years.  And as both hobbyist and professional users alike take great interest in exploring the capabilities these devices have to offer, this growth is set to continue, with a huge 76,000 drones projected to be flying the UK skies by 2030, according to Skies without Limits, a 2018 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

When it comes to commercial applications, drone usage is still in its infancy but in many markets it is growing fast. Agriculture is a case in point. Prescient & Strategic Intelligence (P&S Intelligence) recently projected that the agricultural drones market would grow from $1.5 billion in 2018 to $6.2 billion in 2024, experiencing a 25.0% CAGR during 2019–2024 (forecast period).

The summary of the P&S Intelligence’s 2019 Agricultural Drones Market report, goes on to state: “crop spraying was the largest category in 2018, based on application, owing to the rising prevalence of fungal plant diseases caused by the Verticillium and Rhizoctonia fungi, which are spread by bollworm and flat armyworm. As these diseases destroy the yield, the agrarian community is deploying drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), to kill the pathogen.” 

Drones are increasingly widely used by farmers to help enhance the yield by providing real-time images of crop growth and analysis of health, soil and field quality. Agriculture is after all one of the fastest growing markets for commercial drones today. As they are relatively inexpensive to manufacture, they are widely seen as offering the potential to achieve a fast return on investment (RoI). They can also be used to help locate areas affected by botanical disease. In addition they can be leveraged in the battle against pests. Recent reports indicate that the Maharashtra state government in India plans to use drones to spray insecticides on locust swarms, which have been blamed for damaging vegetables on some farms.

The need for reliability

Currently, reliability remains the biggest obstacle to the widespread deployment of drones in an agricultural setting. A lack of reliability may lead to the loss of the drone, reduced customer satisfaction, significant damage to brand reputation, or a combination of all three.

For governments and administrative authorities, a lack of reliability also represents a danger to the general public from drones crashing out of the sky. The approach taken therefore is typically prudent and cautious.

Standards development and operating constraints

In line with this, as the use of drones is rolled out across agricultural sectors, the evolution of standards and regulations will be key to their success. Moving forwards, operators will need to attain licences to fly some drones but, as we have already seen, the use of drones in an agricultural sector is relatively new and the working methodologies are still emerging, so standards development remains in its earliest stages. Legislation around drone use is beginning to come on stream, however.

In June 2019, the EU published a package of regulations relating to unmanned aircraft systems use, which included certification for certain types of drones and their operators to ensure the safety of individuals. These come into effect in July 2020. Part of these regulations require operators to understand how meteorology impacts drone use and be familiar with IP Ratings. It is likely that in terms of IPX ratings (for water protection), agricultural teams will have little knowledge around what each rating indicates – at least at the outset.

In general terms, the IP Code, or Ingress Protection Code, IEC standard 60529 classifies and rates the degree of protection provided against, dust, intrusion, accidental contact, water and moisture. The first digit refers to solid particle protection, e.g. dust; the second refers to liquid ingress protection, e.g. rain. Additional letters may also be used. The use of the letter, M, for example, indicates the device was moving during the water test, e.g. the drone propellers were in motion.

What operators need to do

In line with evolving standards, operators need to consider reliability of the equipment and the constraints caused by wet weather conditions. They will need to ensure that if a drone has to land at any point, water intrusion is kept to a minimum to reduce damage to important components.

Many will already have this level of awareness. Yet, the likelihood is that they will have little understanding of what IP rating they will need in order to provide a sensible level of protection whatever the meteorological conditions.

They will not typically appreciate the granularity that goes between ‘not protected at all’ and ‘fully water-protected’. Most will not fully comprehend the nuances between the levels, so, once again there is a need for a process of education to be put in place.

As operators go to manufacture drones, they will need to understand what can be done in terms of water protection at each IP rating. They will also need to know if the IPX rating they have chosen for their drone will be suitable for the task they are going to undertake. The reality is that they won’t necessarily need IPX8 (full immersion). In fact IPX4 or IPX5 is typically enough to give rain protection.

How can providers help?

So how can providers play a role in educating drone users across the agricultural market about the prevailing IPX ratings? They need to help them to understand what is the IP rating of the drone; how long that rating is expected to last and also what would compromise it, e.g. water protection achieved by the use of mechanical seals may be jeopardised by physical impact, but also usually degrades over time.

Providers can help ensure the reliability but also the protection of the drone. Solutions should last the lifetime of the device. But equally as essential, if a drone is damaged then solutions should be easily reworkable. For example, thick conformal coatings can make repairability impossible by covering connectors. However, the use of modern nano coating technology not only ensures lifetime protection of the drone but also allows manufacturers to produce devices which are fully reworkable. Nano coatings protect PCBs and even whole devices from the inside out and eliminate the need for bulky mechanical seals which might make a drone difficult or unsafe to open.

Finally, providers can also make drones robust against changing weather conditions. They can help operators protect the drones if they are caught out in rain, so their capital outlay is not lost if they get into contact with water unexpectedly. This kind of service will help drone operators to deliver the services farmers are looking for in rain or challenging weather conditions, which gives them an edge over the competition, who may not be able to achieve that, and a key point of differentiation as they forge ahead into a fast-expanding new marketplace.

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