UK drones to detect illegal agricultural water use


The Environment Agency, which manages agricultural abstraction in the country, will make use of drones for the first time during summer 2019, to track illegal water use.

Whilst regulatory officers carry out high visibility patrols throughout the irrigation season to ensure landowners and farmers are adhering to rulings, last year’s heatwave led to a number of licence holders breaching their conditions and some illegal abstractions have already been uncovered in 2019 to date.

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Andrew Chapman, Environment Planning Specialist for the Environment Agency in East Anglia, said: “Following on from the hot and dry summer we experienced in 2018 our area has not received the winter rainfall we would normally expect and this is placing significant pressure on the water environment.”

“This will be the first time we have ever used drones for this purpose. The majority of irrigators do operate within their licence conditions. However, last year a minority of farmers did not play by the rules and severely restricted other people’s ability to irrigate their crops.”

A third party will be employed to operate the drone, which connects to a web portal, so that an Environment Agency staff member can view the images from a computer and direct the device to fly over certain locations. If irrigators are found to be abstracting illegally, enforcement action will be taken. This can include written warnings, civil sanctions, referral to the Rural Payments Agency or prosecution.

Michael Neale, Land and Water team leader in Essex, said, “We have an intelligence-led approach to all compliance checks. We will always respond to reports of illegal abstraction. We are going to up our response out of hours to reports wherever they come from. We will have more resources on hand to bolster our approach.”

Anyone suspected of abstracting illegally should be reported to the Environment Agency hotline on UK toll-free number 0800 80 70 60.