THE JOURNAL FOR THE SOCIETY OF GARDEN DESIGNERS

New tech for gardens

Illustration: Mike Mahon


Annie Guilfoyle looks at technologies for the future of garden making


Allegedly, we are only five years off travelling around in autonomous, self-driving vehicles, which makes you wonder what advances are coming in technology for outdoor spaces and placemakers.  

So what smart tech is on the market now for use in gardens? At present, it is already possible to remotely monitor the weather, soil and growing conditions in the garden, as well as communicate with a robot lawn mower or irrigation system via a smartphone. Some of these smart devices are also capable of collecting useful data, which could be helpful if you are unfamiliar with an area or climate zone and need to carry out research.

Some devices are completely independent and will respond to the collected data without any intervention. There are systems that not only measure soil moisture, nutrition levels, humidity and ambient light, but can also be programmed with specific plant data, which provides feedback if the conditions change or when the plant requires attention.


The Sileno robotic mower is one of a number of smart products in the Gardena range, managed via an app on your phone. Photo: Gardena


Smart gardens

In 2015, The Husqvarna Group (who produce Gardena products) acquired Koubachi, the pioneering Swiss Company that is a world leader in everything ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) for home and garden, including intelligent watering and mowing products. Should this be something that designers include as part of the garden maintenance plan? Would these apps give clients greater knowledge and control to maintain their gardens?

Possibly, but these devices are not yet smart enough to monitor whether there are any potential problems with pests or diseases. Many companies offer smart watering systems, but early reviews of the more complex smart products report that there is still some way to go before they are as useful as their marketing may suggest.

In 2016, landscape architect Hay Joung Hwang won a Silver Gilt medal at Chelsea with her LG Smart Garden, showcasing IoT garden products such as Parrot Flower Power, which analyses a plant’s health and condition and sends an alert if it needs water or feed.

According to Hwang, “these products are unlikely to transform our homes or gardens into ‘smart central’ overnight, and none are completely life-changing. But whether it is taking control of our plants, or turning on outdoor lights from our phones, they can make life simpler and help save money. Much of what has been designed needs refinement, but manufacturers are still innovating.”


Hay Hwang’s LG Garden at RHS Chelsea 2016 displayed a selection of IoT products. Photo: RHS Neil Hepworth


Blue-sky thinking

At the professional end of the scale, drones are becoming more popular for documenting gardens, and designer John Wyer MSGD has been using them to photograph finished sites. “This has been great, as the translation from the plans to the drone shots is really good and reinforces the design in a way that ground level shots get nowhere near,” he explains.

Could drone filming also be useful for surveying gardens? “We are only just starting to trial photometry surveys using drones that can then translate directly into 3D models in CAD,” Wyer says. “This is very powerful, although trees are not brilliant (similar to those on Google Earth). Also there are quite a lot of restrictions on using the drones in London, which tends to push the cost up a little, although out of London it is quite affordable.”

If you want to invest in a drone, be prepared to spend upwards of £1,000, and like any other technological purchase, you really need to do your homework to ensure you are buying a product that will give you the results you need; and check you are operating within the law.

Alternatively, consider hiring a company to do it for you. Skypower managing director Amy Willis says its day rate for drone hire is £1,600 but this does not include any post-production or editing, just raw images and footage. The cost for drone filming including the video edit would be £3,000-5,000 depending on post-production requirements. There would also be travel expenses to consider as they work all over the UK and abroad.

Legalities are the most important thing to consider when using drones, Willis says. “We work with our clients to ensure the relevant permissions are in place and conduct a full location assessment prior to conducting aerial filming.”


Simon Stickland with his Black Dragon drone, which can capture images and video of landscapes. Photo: Amanda Cogan Barber


Drone advice

Simon Stickland of Dragons Eye Filming says anyone getting commercial gain from operating a drone must be CAA approved, so for professional use “don’t be tempted to buy your own drone or use a friend with one, as you and the drone operator would be breaking the law, resulting in prosecutions and large fines. A CAA-approved drone operator will have been independently assessed to ensure that their operations and flights are safe and follow regulations.” Check the official list of members at www.caa.co.uk 

Check what the drone operator can and cannot do – it can vary. Amy Willis’ company, Skypower, holds an OSC (operational safety case) with the CAA, which “enables us to fly much closer in congested areas plus we have permission to operate up to 650ft high (400ft is the standard restriction). This means we can operate in locations where other operators cannot.”

Prices also vary. While Skypower’s fees start at £1,600, Stickland of Dragons Eye Filming says its minimum charges start from £250 – this would be for a half-day basic photography shoot. “A good all-day shoot with photo editing will start from about £600,” he says.

To use drones in any congested area, all operators, whether hobby or commercial, must check and follow Article 95 (www.caa.co.uk/Consumers/Unmanned-aircraft/Recreational-drones/Recreational-drone-flights). Central London has many No Fly Zones for obvious reasons, these can be checked for free on the NATS website www.nats.aero or on its free phone app.

At the end of July, the government announced plans to introduce registration and safety awareness courses for owners of all drones weighing more than 250g. Geo-fencing will also be introduced, with no-fly zones around areas such as prisons and airports programmed into drones.