As the humble spud comes under surveillance in pursuit of a new image, KOREC's fastMAP Tablet software takes to the air to find out what's on the ground
Following a battering in recent years from the popularity of the Atkins Diet to the adoption of the term âcouch potatoâ for those with an inactive life style, the potato is on the up with a new healthier image! Thanks to a 2005 campaign, the health benefits of the potato (a portion of new potatoes contains more Vitamin C than two apples, a baked potato in its skin contains more fibre than two slices of wholemeal bread) have been publicised across the country with promotions, roadshows and even a âGrow Your own Competitionâ. Preceding this was a campaign for convenience and, to follow, is an Autumn push to promote the various varieties. Behind all these campaigns is the British Potato Council (BPC). Established in 1997 the BPC is funded by potato growers and trade purchasers with this income being used to carry out research and development, disseminate market information and promote potatoes at home and in export markets.To ensure that enough revenue is generated for the BPC to meet its aims, all growers who plant three hectares or more of potatoes a year or purchasers who buy more than 1000 tonnes of potatoes a year are required to register with the BPC. Growers pay a levy based on their planting return at a general rate of Â£39 per hectare. With over 3300 registered growers it is vital that the PBC promotes âfair playâ ensuring the accuracy of planting returns. Anomalies occur for all sorts of reasons from genuine errors to late returns, unregistered growers and those who actively avoid payment.Since the BPCâs establishment in 1997, ensuring âfair playâ has been a very labour intensive process that initially involved up to 20 staff dedicating 20% of their time to physically checking locations and records. However, in recent years the need to reduce expenditure on support services, forced the PBC to find more effective working practices and over the last few years this task has fallen into the hands of just two Field Officers, Mark Colmer and Terry Hunt.âAll growers have to make statutory planting returns as to what they are growing and where,â explained Mark. âItâs up to us to monitor the accuracy of the returned data to ensure fairness. With just the two of us, we were keen to adopt any new technology that would help. We were already going up in a helicopter armed with OS paper maps and coloured pens to cross reference returns with what was actually on the ground and during one of these trips the helicopter operators mentioned that they were using a GPS and GIS data capture system to record gas pipeline locations and why couldnât the same technology be applied for the location of the potato crops? We looked at several hardware/software combinations and on the advice of GIS consultants Longdin and Browning we trialled a system from KOREC, the UKâs largest supplier of GIS Data Capture Systems.âThe system selected was fastMAP Tablet, a data capture software programme designed to run on a Tablet PC that could handle OS 1:50,000 scale raster mapping and connect to the helicopters GPS for âliveâ positioning on the screen. This system enabled the Potato Council to meet several of their key requirements: âWe needed a system that would run on a PC that was small enough to be used comfortably in the helicopter but provided a large screen for us to view maps. KORECâs fastMAP Tablet running on a Motion Tablet PC provided the perfect combination.â Field Officer Terry Hunt went on to explain, ââ¦we tested the system in a car and KOREC customised the software to meet our particular requirements. In particular we wanted to tweak the software to ensure that the map was always centred on the screen and could cope with the speed that the helicopter was flying at. Tool buttons were also customised so that the bare minimum were on the screen so that we wouldnât inadvertently activate something when working in the cramped confines of the helicopter.âSince adopting the system, Terry and Mark are close to covering a third of the UK annually a big increase in what was achieved previously. Typically aerial surveys are carried out at full foliage canopy between the months of May to July and geographical areas selected depending upon the type of crop grown. Before becoming airborne the precise area to be covered is picked, based on historical data. Returns made by growers have already been loaded onto the BPCâs corporate GIS, ESRI ArcGIS, and this information seamlessly imported into fastMAP Tablet so it can be referenced in the air and comparisons made with what is physically on the ground. When a potato field is spotted the Tablet PC screen is touched with a pen and the location recorded. The helicopter enables Terry and Mark to go as low as 800-1000 feet over intensive areas and up to 1800 feet for general spotting and typically 10 days of flying are carried out between May and June depending on the weather. Once back on the ground, data can be easily emailed back to base at Oxford and loaded into the corporate GIS. A paper map can then be printed out and a ground check carried out immediately.With Terry and Mark both taking to the air, one in front with fastMAP Tablet and one behind spotting, their trained eyes ensure that unregistered crops are also spotted and recorded which can then be followed up on the ground. âOur growers want a fair system and working like this means that there really is no hiding place for those that have tried to avoid levies. Itâs a great deterrent and prosecution is really only used as a last resort. Since we started working this way, detection rates are coming down as more growers send in accurate returns. System costs are fairly moderate and with increased revenue it more than compensates for the expenditure made,â stated Terry. However the flights donât always go according to plan! âOne mission had to be aborted following a near miss with an RAF Tornado. It was only thanks to our very experienced pilot who put us into a steep dive that saved us from near disaster in the Welsh Hills,â said Mark. âThe collision warning system was activated but luckily the seriousness of the incident didnât hit us till we were safely back on the ground!âWith the success of the adoption of fastMAP Tablet, the BPC will continue to develop applications. Both Terry and Mark see lots of potential for adapting the system in new ways including, mapping diseased areas, water causes etc and especially for other organisations that require in-depth cropping information.All information kindly supplied by Mark Colmer and Terry Hunt of the British Potato Council.Pictured above: Information logged into fastMAP Tablet by aerial observer. Blue dots represent existing returns and red crosses whatâs been spottedArticle supplied by KOREC Group
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