Feature: drone technology and farming

By: Lisa Potter

Feature: drone technology and farming Feature: drone technology and farming
Feature: drone technology and farming Feature: drone technology and farming
Feature: drone technology and farming Feature: drone technology and farming

Drone technology gives new meaning to having a ‘birds eye view’ and these nifty machines are adding a fresh dimension to farming in New Zealand.

Despite the ever increasing financial pinch, New Zealand farmers continue to innovate and embrace new technology. One of the latest additions to farm management includes the rapidly evolving world of drones.

While for some, these are just toys used to capture fun photographs and video, in industries like surveying, mining, forestry and security, drones represent more serious business applications.

And while not immediately an obvious market, there are a host of applications for drones within the farming sector, from basics such as checking livestock, fencelines and water troughs, to assessing crop health, drought damage, monitoring for disease and recording and analysing data.

In recent decades, technology has all but put an end to the days of farmers covering their farm by foot, checking and assessing pasture and livestock. The drone heralds yet another new era, with future potential for them to be deployed as worker bees, spraying and treating crops. While nations such as Canada and Japan have been using drones in agriculture for years, they are relatively new to the New Zealand market.

As with most fresh farm technology, the drive is towards increasing productivity and cost efficiencies.

At entry level scale, small drones can be purchased for anywhere from $100 and used purely to provide a visual record, to upwards of $10,000 for more sophisticated models.

Eyes in the air

Waikato based farm manager Tim Kane recently purchased an E-Flite Blade Chroma from Hobby Hangar in Hamilton, with the aim of using it to allow seasonal comparisons of pastures and crops.

Managing a 160 hectare dairy farm on the outskirts of Te Awamutu, with a herd of 700 cows as well as growing fodder beet, turnips and chicory, Tim is already sold on the viability of the drone.

Drone _technology5

"The main idea behind it is pretty simple; just to take photographs of paddocks for a visual guide as to areas of better and poorer growth," says Tim.

"By keeping a record of aerial photos throughout the year, we can visually monitor changes and manage pasture and other areas more effectively.

"It also shows where there may be water leaks or spots of poor growth, which we can then fix."

"Plus we can take images to make sure paddocks have been planted evenly and correctly and no spots have been missed. And we can see any areas which may not be growing as well and set about solving that."

The $1900 investment has been well worth the output, reckons Tim.

"Despite the low payout and farmers needing to justify every dollar spent, I think this will pay for itself pretty quickly. We can spend a huge amount of time and effort checking out areas of the farm and if you’re not in exactly the right spot, you could miss a water leak or other problem, whereas it’s immediately visible thanks to the drone footage.

"Both the video and photograph quality are excellent. It has done everything I was told it would do. I put it up in fairly windy conditions the first time I used it, and there were no problems.

"Also as a farm manager, it means I can take photos and send them to the boss, so he can see exactly what is going on."

Tim’s favourite feature is the ‘follow me’ mode, where the drone is launched and follows along behind, drawn by the GPS in the hand held transmitter.

"It means I can drive up farm races on the motorbike and the drone follows, recording along the way. I’m surprised at how useful I’m finding it and think it was a worthwhile investment."

A growing market

Hobby Hangar owner Kevin Foote says the drone market is growing steadily.

"The most basic use of the drone is to be able to take your own aerial shot of the farm. Also because you can see what the drone is looking at on your transmitter, you can fly it over fences and troughs, checking for any problems.

"Some of the machines now can look at the ground and tell you how much dry matter you have per square metre and you can start working out what sort of fertiliser you need to apply. There are some pretty high tech uses starting to come through.

"A lot of money is being pumped into developing these technologies and it’s only a matter of time until it’s a tool every farmer is using."

A drone such as the E-Flite Chroma allows for approximately 20 minutes flying time, but Kevin says in that time it can cover a huge amount of ground.

"It can cruise along at 40km per hour and in 20 minutes you can get right down to the back of your farm and back again – probably a few times."

Specialising in drones, Hobby Hangar offers more than 30 different models of multi-rotor drones and Kevin believes the market will continue to grow and evolve.

Drone _technology2

NZ drone technology

While most drones are imported, closer to home there’s a quiet drone revolution taking place in a discreet shed on the outskirts of Hamilton.

It is here that Altus Unmanned Aerial Solutions manufactures drone systems for applications as diverse as farming, construction, surveying, mining, horticulture and forestry through to aerial photography, security and surveillance, pipeline inspection and NDVI for vegetation. (NVDI stands for Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, a measure assessing crop productivity which calculates around information gathered from visible and infrared radiation).

New Zealand owned and operated, the company’s manufacturing arm may be based in the Waikato, but its products and technology are recognised globally. Due to recent success exporting its commercial UAV solutions, Altus is expanding operations to include a dedicated presence in the USA.

"One of our key points of difference is our patented ballistic parachute system," says Altus UAS business development manager Simon Morris.

"Not only does this allow peace of mind to operators, but also safety to those below, as well as full and affordable insurance on the investment.

"There are many applications for agriculture and farming for this sort of technology. An Altus UAV can provide landowners and stakeholders with full high resolution imagery of small and large properties, and is suitable for mapping boundaries, streams, fence lines, gates and other assets.

"With the advent of clever sensors such as multispectral cameras, information gathered by the UAV can even report on crop or pasture health, water stress, nutrient levels, runoff and others.

"Sometimes it is just enough to send the aerial vehicle out for a quick "scout", just to check on the stock or trough levels."

Legally drones must be flown within ‘line of sight’ rules, so operators must be able to see the drone at all times.

Certification can be gained to fly outside of those rules, but with most farmers at entry level of the drone journey, an uncertified drone can be flown to 400 feet and can be flown pretty much anywhere, so long as you have permission of the landowner you are flying over, and not within four kilometres of an airport.

Rules and regulations around flying drones can be found at caa.govt.nz.

For the latest farming news, subscribe to Farm Trader magazine here.

Keep up to date in the industry by signing up to Farm Trader's free newsletter or liking us on Facebook