The view from up high: drones find a place

Aerial spe­cial­ist Fiona Lake shows drones strad­dle art and agri­cul­ture

Central and North Rural Weekly - - NEWS - KIR­ILI LAMB kir­ili.lamb@ru­ral­

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.

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