March 22, 2017 nporter

Drones much more than toys for farmers

Will Bignell, co-owner of DroneAg, says the commercial future for drones is in precision agriculture.  Supplied by Emily Parkinson

Drones have captured the public imagination with much the same fervor as might a toy at Christmas.

“People love them,” drone expert Arko Lucieer, associate professor in remote sensing at the University of Tasmania, says. “People just love the novelty of something that flies that they have control over.”

But beyond their faddish appeal, unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) are pegged as the future workhorses of the agricultural sector.

Researchers into precision agriculture are developing applications for UAVs in everything from rounding up cattle to crop irrigation and the monitoring of breeding habits in ewes. Fitted with remote sensors, and UAVs can detect crop stress before humans and, when applied to soil and water management, are helping make farming closer to an exact science.

For drone expert Will Bignell, who runs DroneAg, a Tasmanian-based operator of UAVs for precision agriculture, it is the latter use that will define the future commercial success of the agricultural drone industry.

“Data quality, data understanding and data manipulation is where a drone business comes into play, as opposed to just ‘drones in agriculture’, which usually means a farmer using an off-the-shelf drone to fly around herding sheep or looking for stuck cows, checking the back block and just general scouting,” he says

Bignell’s DroneAg is one of about 120 operators in Australia with Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval to operate unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

Drones collate data 

Three-quarters of his work is in Tasmania with the poppy industry, one of the world’s biggest, for which drones collate data to give extra yield in alkaloid opium production.

“These are generally the top-performing farmers, where most of the other big-ticket items are already worked out – drainage, fencing, irrigator set-up, system design. They’ve already done it right. Now they’re chasing that extra 10 per cent – that extra chunk of ground that wasn’t performing as it should.”

Despite their advantages, Bignell believes drones have, in some cases, been oversold to farmers, particularly in the growing market for do it yourself drones for crop-scouting.

“The scouting market and all this hype we are seeing at the moment is really just about having eyeballs on a different perspective on your farm. You’re not gathering any new spatial data or sensor-derived data to then go and implement precision agriculture. A lot of these guys are just setting the drone up and going, ’Oh yeah, this is my problem’. They are not taking the next step into data handling.”

His UAVs can be used to draft maps of a single paddock, or an entire 750-hectare farm, producing a three-dimenional map within five centimetres of accuracy, he says.

“To have someone operating a drone who is an agronomist is crucial to it working. That’s the challenge we face, to come at drones from commercially viable angles – thermal imaging, crop-vigor indexing – and tying that back to irrigators and on-ground solutions.”

Come with a cost

Despite their proven benefit in yield management, UAVs are still some way from becoming an affordable part of everyday farm management, he says.

Currently only 5 per cent of farmers can afford his technology, usually those in high-yield crops like poppies.

“We can gather awesome data with a drone at a really good price point and the switched-on, top 5 per cent of farmers can make money from us but the top 20 percentile of producers are struggling to take up the technology because it’s a lot of work.

“We believe everyone who has hired us had made their money back, if not doubled it, in first production.”

University of Tasmania’s Lucieer expects agricultural drone use to increase, along with the uptake of higher-tech irrigation practices.

“Tasmanian precision agriculture is slowly developing and farmers are starting to invest in things like variable-rate, centre-pivot irrigators,” he says, referring to irrigators that can be programmed to nourish crops at a variable rate, rather than standard hardware that sprays water in uniform doses. These irrigators work optimally when programmed using detailed field data collected by drone.

“It all boils down to, if we can map the health of a crop and we can measure how well that crop is doing, then that can provide input into variable-rate irrigation, variable-rate fertilisation and variable-rate pesticide control. We get a very good indication of how the crop is doing within the paddock and we can be much more targeted when it comes to the application of water, pesticides and fertiliser.”

Quality of data crucial

In the end, he says, it is the quality of the data that is crucial to the industry’s success.

“For me, my interest isn’t in the drone itself. For me they are just a flying platform for a sensor. It’s the sensors that really matter to me and, ultimately, they will be really important for the agricultural industry as well. If we don’t get the sensors right and don’t get the science right, then the maps we produce don’t mean anything.”

Lucieer is working on a range of applications for UAVs in the agricultural sector, including for yield optimisation in the poppy industry, and also in viticulture, where he is using drone imagery to monitor vine vigour and grape quality. He is developing drones for use in pasture management in the dairy industry, whereby they can monitor the density of pasture to guide grazing decisions.

Applications of drones and sensor technology are moving very quickly, he says. Within the next three to five years he believes it will be possible for a manager of a farm, or vineyard, to be equipped with their own mini-satellite to send out at will.

“It could be part of a system that sits in a shed in its own mini weather station and it flies out of a little hangar when it’s fully charged and maps a field and lands by itself and recharges. It would then upload the data to a computer server and present a farm manager, or a vineyard manager, with a map on a smartphone. Ultimately, that’s where I hope, or think, things are going.”
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