The view from up high: drones find a place
Aerial specialist Fiona Lake shows drones straddle art and agriculture
This week we chat to rural photographer Fiona Lake about drone technology.
FIONA Lake discovered the power of flight for large agricultural operations working on an outback cattle property in 1988.
With the development of drone technology, and improved affordability, she has now incorporated this technology into her self-crafted career, both as an internationally recognised photographer and as an educator, presenting at drone symposia and conferences worldwide.
Townsville-based Fiona straddles a world between art and agriculture, with a foot firmly planted in the pragmatism of the tech’s application to farming operations and the rare beauty that a drone can capture at height in an image.
She has produced several photography books depicting rural life, including aerial photography, having fallen in love with the altered perspective on patterns and shadow offered by an aerial point of view.
“There was a photo of a windmill I took about 20 years ago on the Barkly Tableland, just as the sun came up and its shadow seemed to go on for miles. It’s not the sort of thing you can see on the ground,” Fiona said.
Fiona owns four drones of varying size and complexity, having started out with a fairly small model, and moving up to larger and more robust models. She stressed that it was important to recognise their role as a tool, not a toy, and go for quality.
Licensing in this country for larger drones is also an investment in study, time and cost, requiring an operator’s certificate and remote pilots licence.
She still uses both helicopters as well as drones, choosing the appropriate tool for the job.
Her experience in rural settings has taught her that drones are not a catch-all solution, and she seeks to educate rural producers about realistic expectations around where drones are useful.
“Helicopters can still do things that drones can’t,” she said.
“They can go a lot higher, they can fly in areas where it would be difficult to get permission for a drone.
“Even though I’ve got a licence, you still sometimes have to jump through a lot of hoops to get permission.
“They can go longer: drone batteries last only half an hour, you can go all day in a helicopter.”
She said in workshops, she liked to go beyond drone technology and present a range of ag-tech solutions.
“There are purposes where drones aren’t so good on-station. There are other kinds of ag-tech that are either useful now, or they are being developed and will be very useful in a couple of years.
“There is a whole raft of ag-technology that is coming, and drones are just a part of that. It’s very exciting.”
She stresses the importance of taking a practical approach to drone technology, to not getting caught up in how shiny and how fast a device might be, but focussing instead on efficiency and safety.
“There might be other technology that can do it cheaper, easier, more safely,” she said.
“Number one there would be checking bores. The number of people that have gone out purchasing drones thinking that they are going to be able to fly them to check their bores, and legally, you cannot fly them past the line of sight.
“Most of these drones, you can’t fly them a k away and still be able to see them.
“So really, telemetry is a much better option.”
Telemetry is an automated communications process where data is transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring. Satellite imagery, which is becoming more detailed, accessible and cost-effective may be another monitoring option to consider.
There are several instances where drones can offer a distinct advantage, keeping people out of harm’s way.
“Drones are good for anything that is safety related.
“The best advantage of drones is probably the immediacy: you can go out, crank it up and get it up in the air within minutes, and have a look at something.
“So you can do a spot check on fires, you can check roofs, solar systems, cows, a whole range of close things, quickly.”
She recently presented workshops at the RAPAD Outback Drone Symposium held at Barcaldine over August 11-12, an early step towards establishing the region as an international drone testing hub.
“I’m amazed someone hasn’t done it before, because it’s a no-brainer,” she said.
“You head north and you head inland, and you get the ideal weather for testing, and the space.
“It’s the same reason why
❝ There is a whole raft of ag-technology that is coming, and drones are just a part of that. It’s very exciting.
— Fiona Lake
the major air-testing area in the US is Nevada. The weather, the low air pollution, the space and the low population.
“So that area of Australia, we have that similar climate, reliably blue and sunny, which obviously has a down side, but if its film industry, or aviation, there’s an upside.”
Fiona sees that possibility created by dry climate, what would be a disadvantage for agriculture, as something that can be a positive in offering an alternate regional income stream that allows a regional economy to diversify.
“The film industry at Winton is an example of making use of the fact that the weather is reliably clear.”
Fiona will shortly be presenting at the InterDrone conference in Las Vegas, including workshops and included in a discussion panel for the conference’s Women in Drones lunch.
“I like InterDrone, it has a good small business focus, it’s users, and it also has a strong agricultural stream, so there’s a lot of agricultural drone users presenting there from different countries: so you are actually learning about agriculture in different countries.
“People from 54 countries go to that conference, so there’ll be people from all around the flat.”
DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE: Giru cane crops, North Queensland.
Aerial photographer and drone specialist Fiona Lake drone night flight training near Las Vegas.
High country apple orchards, Victoria.
Burdekin Dam, Queensland.
Cordillo Downs, South Australia.