Farm drones reducing the cost of precision agriculture

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A quadracopter drone hovers over a farm field
Quadracopter drones like these are increasingly visible over Australian farms
(Credit: Steve Blank)

Remotely collected data is a key input to precision farming systems. The data required to accurately measure and respond to yield variability in crops can come from many sources: harvesters, sensor networks, satellite mapping and, more recently, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called 'drones'.

Drones can collect the same range of data as satelites or manned aircraft but at far lower cost and higher resolution. They have the further advantage of offering greater control over exactly when data is collected and the privacy of the data. 

Pioneered in military and in civil aviation, drone technology in being embraced by farmers. Now, from their offices, farmers can send drones out over hundreds of hectares of crops, or thousands of hectares of pastoral land, zeroing in on problem areas and addressing them early, before they get out of hand.  

Drones are useful for locating invasive pests, under-watered plants and nitrogen deficiencies in crops. Pinpointing problems via their onboard high-definition cameras enables the spot application of fertiliser, herbicides or moisture. By targeting just those locations that need it, fertiliser run-off and water usage are decreased. Likewise, drones are finding applications in the management of livestock and in the emerging discipline of planned and controlled grazing. 

Several types of drones are being used already on farms in Australia and abroad. Some are simple, remote-controlled helicopters with GoPro-type cameras attached; others are more sophisticated quadracopters that have built-in GPS and the capability to fly pre-programmed routes. 

Tasmania-based, DroneAg, is a CASA-approved operator of unmanned aircraft specialising in the precision agriculture sector. Will Bignell and Kyle Gardner, the creators of DroneAg, were featured recently on ABC’s LandLine.  

DroneAg's Australian built farming drone
DroneAg's Australian built farming drone
Credit: DroneAg

The detailed data drones can provide goes far beyond what farmers can ascertain with the naked eye. The Drone Ag system, for example, offers sophisticated topgraphic, temperature and water data, integrated with orthorectified colour images and tractor and harvester maps, to mention just a few data products. 

'Spy' drones used by third parties are not popular with farmers. When drones are operated by farmers in the interests of their agribusinesses, they are a powerful tool, enabling dramatic savings in time and transport when utilised on properties extending over hundreds or thousands of hectares.

The video below contains interesting information and stats that highlight what drones have to offer farmers:

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