Drones – toys or tools?

Drones in agriculture – toys or tools?


Farming Small Areas How To
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As drones become more useful in the agricultural sector, there are a number of factors which affect what will be best for your farm.

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We have all seen Quadcopters for sale and quite a few of us have bought the cheaper models – just for some fun.

Isolating separate management zones allows applicable testing and decisions on how to treat this zone differently to the rest of the paddock.

Isolating separate management zones allows applicable testing and decisions on how to treat this zone differently to the rest of the paddock.

It is quickly becoming a well-known fact that drones are not just a toy, but can be a powerful tool in managing agricultural enterprises.

They are very useful in collecting data to make informed management decisions.

Some software packages allow you to capture data from the drone direct to your smart phone.

Some software packages allow you to capture data from the drone direct to your smart phone.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been utilised for data collection since the late 90s in military operations.

With increased usage came reduced purchase prices.

Functionality and data collection capabilities highlighted an opportunity in the agricultural sector. 

Almost overnight, drones became an integral part of agricultural enterprise management.

There are two main types of UAVs on the market:

A Precision Hawk Data Mapper Software demo detailing some of the information available.

A Precision Hawk Data Mapper Software demo detailing some of the information available.

FIXED WING 

  • used mainly for gathering data;
  • speed and gliding ability means they can cover more ha/hr;
  • carry more weight so can be better equipped with cameras; and
  • battery life ranges from 40 to 60 minutes;

ROTOR STYLE 

  • used as a scouting tool and data collector;
  • types - four rotor (Quadcopter), six rotor (Hexacopter), eight rotors (Octocopter);
  • hovering on fixed spot;
  • agile, stable and easy to control; and
  • battery life currently approximately 10 to 30 minutes.

The most commonly sold drone is the Quadcopter.

These are routinely used for such things as:

  • checking livestock;
  • checking watering points;
  • assessing pasture availability;
  • assessing crop damage from pests or diseases;
  • visually assessing vertebrate pest populations or damage to crops and pasture paddocks;
  • taking family pictures at Christmas time; and
  • following the ski boat videoing the kids on the new wakeboard.

Once you are familiar with the operation and you venture out to purchase a slightly bigger and more expensive drone, you will be looking for a return on Investment.

That is to say, ‘How does my business justify the several thousand dollars spent on a drone?’

The answer of course is that it can supply you with data that can be used to make management decisions aligned with your business production goals.

Smarter Farming packages are available that include:

  • drone;
  • visual sensor (camera);
  • Multi Spectral Sensor (high resolution near infrared camera); and
  • software packages to collect and collate data and images.

Your return on income starts when you can collect data, analyse data and make management decisions that increase efficiencies in production.

An easy starting point into this sphere of data collection is using a multi spectral near infrared camera to collect Normalised Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) images.

These measure the amount of reflected light at a specific wavelength.

The light is associated with the amount of chlorophyll content in the leaves of the plant which is an indication of plant health.

An NDVI image of a field will indicate a lack of uniformity in the reflected light due to variability in the amount of chlorophyll in the vegetation canopy of the crop or pasture being assessed.

Once you can see where the variation occurs in this way, you can isolate this as a separate management zone.

Then you can undertake applicable testing and consequently make decisions on how to treat this zone differently to the rest of the paddock.

This could come in the form of herbicide or pesticide application, fertiliser application or even irrigation to this zone in order to decrease variability in overall vegetative yield.

How a Normalised Difference Vegetative Index image works.

How a Normalised Difference Vegetative Index image works.

BUYING A DRONE

Things to consider when buying a drone for your business include:

  • legal considerations CASA Regulations;
  • tool or toy: how are you going to make a return on investment?
  • What resolution of images do you need?
  • How are you going to handle data?
  • Level of equipment needed (multi-spectral cameras and the like); and
  • budget.

Drones of the future take flight at Cockatoo Island

Sydney’s heritage listed former naval dockyard Cockatoo Island is now home to a state-of-the-art drone manufacturing operation.

Carbonix is the first Australian company to commercialise and export fixed-wing drones using advanced composite materials like carbon fibre.

Minister for Trade and Industry Niall Blair said the NSW-based company was pushing the boundaries in design and innovation.

“Carbonix has developed a new fixed-wing drone called Volanti. It looks like a plane but has multi-rotors attached so it can take off and land vertically,” Mr Blair said.

“It’s built with carbon fibre making it extremely light. The airframe alone weighs just 4kg but it capable of carrying equipment loads twice its body weight.

“Impressively, the nose cone weighs less than a foam cup but is 10 times as strong and can handle hot temperatures up to 120 degrees Celsius.

“The potential for a drone of this kind is endless.

“It can help farmers monitor and analyse crops, survey mining operations and transport emergency medical supplies.

“This drone can also undertake search and rescue missions in military and defence applications and even aid in shark spotting.”

The Volanti drone is strong and stable enough to withstand winds up to 60km/h in flight.

It can reach speeds of up to 100km/h or travel as slowly as 55km/h.

Even more impressive is the machine’s energy efficiency, with the drone able to fly for up to seven hours if needed.

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