Eye in the sky
Cory Hillsley shows apple-grower Roger Lenne the fruit-spraying capabilities of a Yamaha mini-helicopter during a demonstration flight on his orchard in northern Victoria
UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are the new go-to tool for the efficient farmer
IF dozens of small robots beavering away in the paddock pruning and spraying while the farmer sleeps is the way of the future, so too is the greater use of small drones and unmanned helicopters to better inform decision-making. At one end of the spectrum is Yamaha’s unmanned remote-controlled mini-helicopter that is being used by councils and national park managers in western Queensland and Victoria to kill blackberries and prickly acacia in hard-to-access places. It costs $120,000, is 3.6 metres long, weighs 99kg and can fly for an hour with a 20-litre payload of chemicals. These larger helicopters have yet to be used directly by farmers. But Tatura, Victoria, apple grower Roger Lenne, whose orchard has been used to demonstrate the helicopter, thinks the helicopters and drones have great potential. “This is a big investment and you would have make sure the returns are there, but I can see when this transmits soil maps and crop growth images back to my iPad, it would be really useful.”
The first small drones were formally trialled at the Mingenew wheat farm of graingrower Darrin Lee in Western Australia in 2013. The trials confirmed to Lee that these much smaller, relatively less expensive drones could revolutionise farming. Lee told a WA No-Tillage Farmers Association crop update session last year that most of his farming his decisions were based on images from a $7000 hexacopter drone that could fly 16km at 90km/h and remain aloft for 45 minutes. High-resolution pictures provide information on weeds, crop maturity, rate of crop growth, soil types, crop nutrition and yield mapping. Lee, who first used a smaller quadcopter that could not handle variable weather or fly a reliable flight pattern, says his new drone has made significant savings and helps predict how much grain he will have to sell well before harvest. “The hexacopter takes six frames every second, which allows us to see where the weeds are, and turns our self-propelled sprayer into a green-seeker or weed-seeker,” Lee says. “More importantly, I want to know, at any given time, the phenology [biological stage] of the plant. The interaction between the weather station, the computer program and the drones allows us to start getting some answers.”
Infra-red images from the drone are linked to Lee’s smartphone, tablet and computer where they are combined with historical data, rainfall and climatic information in a Crop Manager program. Armed with the data, Lee can decide when to harvest, spray for weeds or worry about a crop disease outbreak. “The computer program might send my phone a message to say that current weather conditions, combined with the current crop stage, resulted in a rust problem at this same point in the crop cycle five years ago,” he says.