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ARTICLES >> Livestock Articles

Drone Technology Potential in Agriculture Creating a Buzz

Posted by Bestprac on May 01 2013

By Liz Guerin

Look up in the sky...is it a bird? Is it a plane? No... it may be a drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

Long used for military purposes, several Australian companies are using drones for real estate and mining purposes and, with equipment costs falling, the possibilities for applications in both agriculture and pastoral industries are vast.

Agricultural Consultant, Peter Harrison of Above Capricorn Technologies in Darwin, says that in areas where the use of helicopters and aircraft are a normal part of daily operation, a move to use drones isn’t much of a stretch.

SHAPES AND SIZES: Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles come in all shapes and sizes – and could be well suited for use in pastoral areas.“The pastoral industry have long been adopters of innovations such as telemetry and semi automated technologies, and have been general pioneers of aerial agriculture, so drone technology is just an extension of that,” Mr Harrison said. “The ability to be able to sit in your office, watch what is going on, and make decisions based around that information can save you from having to travel a fair distance just to ‘observe’.”

He says that the use of drones in agricultural and pastoral industries is bounded only by one’s imagination and having an application that you can make work.

“Drones are already being used in some places to photograph and highlight areas of disease and fertiliser deficiencies in crops, weed infestations, river heights, and monitoring feral animal populations, rangelands, fencelines and watering points,” Mr Harrison said.

The drones can be set up to either report in real time, or record digital photographs or high definition video for review later. The can be programmed to fly a set route or transect via GPS guidance systems.

“I think this is one of the biggest advantages in a pastoral environment. You don’t always need to do things, but you do need to check. You might initially need to do some field observations or measurements, but once that baseline information is collected you can use the imaging to monitor anything, whether that be pasture levels, erosion, watering points or fencelines,” Mr Harrison said.
There are two types of drones are available - either fixed wing or helicopters.

Fixed wing drones are more expensive, but are capable of longer range and duration reconnaissance work. They fly to a height of 3,000 metres and are very similar to the ones used for military applications in Afghanistan. Whilst the military versions are far superior to those available to the public, the aircraft are quite similar.

“They basically look like a fairly unsophisticated model aircraft, with an engine on the top and imaging cameras attached in the body of the aircraft,” Mr Harrison said. “The fixed wing versions will give you between 6 and 10 hours of flying time and can be run by radio control systems, either remotely controlled or via a set pathway according to GPS co-ordinates.”

Helicopter drones are generally cheaper and are used mainly for short-range work.  Quadrocopters are the most common type used, with the four rotors providing greater stability. They fly to a height of about 300 metres and are already used extensively in commercial applications in Australia such as aerial imaging of real estate. Most commercially available systems have inbuilt gyroscopic stabilisation, which means that the platform remains stable – and so all that is required is flying in a horizontal plane.

“There are some permits and training required from CASA (the Australian airspace regulator) for operating quadrocopters but, generally speaking, in most rural and remote locations, this will not be a major issue.”
Mr Harrison says that all of the drones are capable of providing good quality photographic information.

“They run high-definition video and the cameras that are being used are typically in the 8-14 mega pixel range with good resolution,” he said.

However, the biggest difficulty at the current time is that most of the lower-end systems, (particularly the quadrocopters), require line of sight in order to operate them.

A recent report in Scientific American magazine stated that the agricultural sector was by far the biggest commercial market for drones, in the US, and was likely to continue to be so in the future with orders amounting to billions of dollars.

“To initially purchase a drone and kit it out with imaging equipment, might seem relatively expensive – but with a lot of pastoral properties having an aircraft and the cost of equipment falling, the cost of spending between $10,000 and $50,000 on an unmanned aircraft is not beyond the realm of possibility,” Mr Harrison said.
 

Last changed: May 02 2013

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