It seems everywhere you turn, someone is telling you about the benefits of drones in agriculture. Nearly everyone it seems has an opinion, positive or otherwise, on how they will change the way we farm. Nice in-crop imagery was a great way for farmers to sink their teeth into drone technology, but as time has passed there has been an ever increasing push for real actionable and most importantly, timely information.
One of my biggest concerns is that many of these startups are developing technology without input or consultations with the end user - the farmer. Pete Nelson from AgLaunch talks of the “Farm Centric Innovation Model” and I have to agree with many of his sentiments. As an industry we need to be out testing these technologies and feeding back to ensure that as end users we are getting the development we need for our future. And to do that we need to be proactively using the technology in the first place.
Let’s look at some of the safety considerations as well as potential uses for this technology, both now and into the future.
One of the first considerations when looking at a drone should be “Will I require to be licenced?” The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has all the information you need to make sure you are doing the right thing. You can visit casa.gov.au/rpa for all of the latest information - which includes information for being a private landowner flying over your own land.
Most commercial drone operations will require the pilot to have a Remote Pilot Licence (RePL) and the organisation they work for to have a RPA Operator’s Certificate. However there is an excluded category, where if you are flying over your own land you can undertake some commercial like activities. However it is important to note that it is still vitally important that you understand and fly within the Standard Operation Conditions which are available on the CASA website above.
Details of the requirements are:
|Excluded Operation||Weight Class||RePL Required?||ReOC Required?|
|Very Small RPA - Commercial (all)||100g - <2kg||No||No|
|Small RPA - Private Landowner||2kg - <25kg||No||No|
|Medium RPA - Private Landowner||25kg - <150kg||Yes||No|
|Large RPA - Private Landowner||>150Kg||Yes||Yes|
Despite there being no requirement to undertake RePL training. I believe that it is beneficial to both farmers and advisors along with the wider commercial drone industry that anyone undertaking these activities complete at minimum their RePL. Why do I say that? Because despite their seemingly innocuous size, they can pose serious threats to other airspace users. Welcome to aviation.
One of the biggest risks when flying a drone in cotton areas is of course our low flying ag aviation friends. Imagine you are minding your own business checking out irrigation bays, suddenly you hear your local aerial operator flying over to his next job. Is he really going to see your very small category white drone in the air? Probably not. Whilst there have not yet been any reported fatalities from drones striking manned aircraft, there have in recent weeks been several high profile drone strikes on both civilian and military aircraft. Luckily they were damage only, but the time will come when one such aircraft is not so lucky.
I’m sure you are all aware of the current uses for drones on farm: crop monitoring, infrastructure checks, mustering. All pretty easy to do with nearly any very small drone on the market. Software such as DroneDeploy have made crop monitoring much easier for farmers and advisors, where they can get basic imagery including ‘False NDVI’ (really just a fancy term for adding algorithms to a band of light in any regular drone camera) to gain insights into what is happening in their field.
Improving safety outcomes is also a really important use for drones. Need to check something at the top of your silo complex? Send a drone up. Need to check what’s happening during a flood event? Send out the drone (within visual line of sight of course & not when it’s raining). Another tick for the myBMP box.
What can you get when you take the next step up, or is it worth taking the next step? I see that many agronomic firms are implementing precision ag departments including the use of drones as a part of that system. Adding multispectral sensors to drones with larger lift capacity allows for more in depth insight to what is happening in crop and at a smaller resolution than available via satellite. Of course, it is going to be a while before drones can efficiently (time and battery life) cover larger holdings, so satellite data is still important.
These sensors are giving some really interesting information on crop health and potential. And when combined with soil and harvest data will help identify which areas of a field need differing focuses for improving potential.
Can a WeedIt be attached to a spray drone? What about microwave technology for controlling weeds via drone in-crop? Will a drone be able to identify insects within a crop which then gives a spray drone a custom spray map? Will I be able to send my drone out first thing in the morning to get telemetry data from irrigation infrastructure on how soon I’ll need to water again? These and many more question are some some of hundreds being investigated and developed at the moment.
Even having been involved in the drone industry for some time now it is really hard to predict where the technology is going to end up. New models are released several times per year with incremental advancements. New sensors are released on nearly an annual basis. Software is also updated incrementally. The biggest changes will need to be in endurance, where a drone will be able to cover hundreds of hectares at centimetre accuracy if they are to keep ahead of satellite technology.
By 2022 it is estimated that the agricultural drone industry will be worth in excess of $32 billion. While investment dropped to around $118 million in 2016 down from $326 million in 2015, there has been no shortage of newcomers onto the drone hardware and software scene.
And that’s why I keep coming back to Pete Nelson’s ‘Farm Centric Innovation Model’. As the one hands on on the farm - you have the power to direct the technology to where it needs to go. Get involved, start small if you have to. But make sure that farmers don’t get left behind in the race to develop farm tech.