Tool or toy? It’s up in the air

Not an easy fit for agricultural drones in broadacre


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FLYING HIGH: McGregor Gourlay national digital agriculture manager, Brooke Sawyer believes people should be more excited about the data then the tool collecting it. Photo: Melanie Jenson Photography

FLYING HIGH: McGregor Gourlay national digital agriculture manager, Brooke Sawyer believes people should be more excited about the data then the tool collecting it. Photo: Melanie Jenson Photography

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Not an easy fit for agricultural drones in broadacre

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THEY take pretty pictures and if you choreograph your headers correctly, your drone video may even trend on social media.

However, precision agriculture specialists and researchers are questioning the utility of drones for broadacre agriculture.

McGregor Gourlay, national digital agriculture manager, Brooke Sauer said while her company was a drone stockist, she felt as a general rule, drones were more useful for purposes other than broadacre precision agriculture.

“We have a large industrial multi-rotor drone for our commercial partnerships with some start-ups,” she said.

“We fly a variety of different sensors, to gather information, to fast-track research and development.

“We generally don’t do broadacre work with it, as it is just too inefficient.”

Ms Sauer said amongst other limitations, drones, were not business efficient in terms of the man-hours required to fly a large broadacre paddock.

“The physical capability of the drone is limited,” she said.

Sensors slowing us down

“While the drone itself will fly reasonably fast, you have to fly to the capability of the sensor.

“There is always a compromise between the flight speed and data quality from the sensor.

Ms Sauer said sensor technology limited efficiency as an overlap was required to ensure that a reasonable ortho-mosaic can be created from the data collected.

“For most of these sensors you are expected to run a minimum 70 per cent overlap,” she said.

“There are sensors around that require less overlap, where you can fly higher and faster, they rely on proprietary stitching software to pull the data together.

“But ultimately, the data is more likely to be inaccurate and messy.”

Ms Sauer said when it came to the faster fixed-wing drones, they suffered from different data gathering issues including weight limitations and the sensors are not normally mounted to a pivoting support, or gimbal.

“The sensor is often crooked on a fixed wing, so the data capture is always a bit compromised,” she said.

“Unfortunately, there is no perfect drone for capturing large scale broadacre data.”

Farm overseer

However, Ms Sauer said, a light weight drone was really useful for getting a good overall view of the farm.

“Drones can be used to check fences, monitor crop emergence, make sure water troughs are full or check calving.

“Anything where an aerial view is beneficial.

Ms Sauer also said drones were particularly useful for research.

“If you want small areas and really high-resolution data, they are perfect,” she said.

“The drone we have has a really large gimball, so even on a windy day the sensor is still perpendicular to the crop.

“Trying to do that on a broad-scale however, is completely inefficient.”

Ms Sauer said for research purposes she would be able to get across 40 hectares, using two batteries, with each running for 17 minutes before requiring a re-charge.

“If you are trying to fly a field which is 400 or 500 hectares, we’d need to fly it for a week,” she said.

Ms Sauer said variations in light when flying for a long period of time caused errors in data, even when a light sensor was used.

“As soon as you have broken cloud cover, you are creating shadows over fields.”

For those wanting to gather broadacre aerial data, Ms Sauer said a plane could be a better option.

“They can cover much bigger areas, over a shorter period of time,” she said.

“They can handle a wider range of weather conditions.

“Having said that as more satellites are launched and pass over more frequently, the price of higher resolution images is coming down.”

The drone isn’t important

Ms Sauer said, overall, the data gathered has to be useful for a decision.

“Be more excited about the data that is gathered than the platform collecting it,” she said.

“You have to have a set purpose in mind as to why you want this data and how you are going to use it.

“Otherwise it becomes just another pretty picture.

“If you have no intention of managing nitrogen in-season, then collecting a nitrogen map is a waste of time.

“Understanding variability in a field, if you aren’t willing to manage it, is a pointless operation.”

Ms Sauer said her role with McGregor Gourlay aimed to help farming clients understand where technology had a place in their business.

“I aim to help our clients adapt and utilise technology in ways in which they can become more productive and profitable.

“Precision agriculture is not the new way of farming.

“It uses a set of tools to allow farmers to quantify current decisions and determine what can be done better.

“It should always compliment the current farming system and enhance the production capacity.”

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The story Tool or toy? It’s up in the air first appeared on Farm Online.

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