The use of drones in agriculture is starting to gain traction in Australia. In particular we are seeing increased interest in spray drones, particularly with Agriculture Victoria now allowing drone spraying to occur with a wider range of unmanned aircraft from the middle of December 2020. We are now hoping that other state regulatory bodies will come into alignment with CASA regulations to open up the use of spray drones across Australia, in particular for farmers & graziers wanting to use these UAV’s on their own properties.
I do have to say that drone spraying is one of my favourite topics and I enjoy working with our industry bodies to see these changes come through to secure the future of this industry. My background is in agriculture, we live on a dryland and irrigated corn and grain farm on the Darling Downs in Queensland. While we use majority ground and some manned aircraft here on this farm for chemical application, having this experience gives me an inside and end user experience with what is required and expected from those moving into the spray drone space.
When there is an off target chemical drift issue, currently the first photo that gets put up is one of a fixed wing aircraft, though rarely are they the ones at fault. Without strong regulations around the use of unmanned spray drones I can see that images of them will one day replace the fixed wing, although I’m sure AAAA’s would be happy with that!!
With all that being said, I do see a lot of potential for great things to happen with spray drones both here in Australia and overseas. There are many use cases for these machines, despite their smaller capacity compared to larger manned aircraft or ground based spraying systems.
Farmers in some areas are having their farmland slowly encroached upon by towns or cities, therefore manned aircraft operators are becoming hesitant to undertake work near these sensitive areas. Here, drones are seen as less of a risk and just as importantly, less conspicuous to sensitive neighbours. In areas traditionally serviced by ground based spray systems, drones allow product to be applied during periods of wet weather, when tractors cannot enter paddocks. Scott Fisher of Skytech Solutions has been flying spray drones commercially in these situations in Northern NSW for over 12 months and is also applying product to tree crops, where traditionally the canopy is difficult to access by ground based system. Scott also is working on other use cases to suit his area.
Spray drones can also be used to apply product at variable rates across a field or paddock, having created a zone map pulled from data out of a multispectral camera mounted on a drone (or other means). They can also be used to ‘fill in’ areas where a manned aircraft can’t access due to power lines or other infrastructure.
Spreading of granulated fertilisers or herbicides and even seed can be done very effectively by a drone, particularly in smaller lots. One company working on this following the devastating Australian bushfires of 2020 is Airseed Technologies, who are using a drone fitted with a customised spreading system that disperses seed encapsulated in a nutrient rich pod.
Spray drones aren’t out there to replace manned aircraft applications, I see them as a complimentary technology that can assist both operators and end users achieve their desired result. It will be some time before these ‘small’ spray drones can go out and spray a 1000 acre wheat crop in a timely and cost effective manner!
‘Till next month,
Owner, Fly the Farm.