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

The Australian - The Deal - - Future farmer -

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.

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