World Drone Challenge: seeking UAVs that work for farmers

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Drone above a paddock: the inaugural World Drone Challenge will showcase the latest drone designs - including some adapted to the needs of Australia's farmers.
Drone above a paddock: the inaugural World Drone Challenge will showcase the latest drone designs - including some adapted to the needs of Australia's farmers.
from Youtube

Queensland-based drone expert Josh Keegan is working with Start-Up Toowoomba co-founder David Masefield and the federal government’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to create a new worldwide contest that will double as an international showcase for drone research and its potential applications across industry – notably agriculture.

Challenge co-organisers Keegan and Masefield have lofty ambitions: they hope “to create a world-class competition to lift drone capacity and endurance to a whole new level, and position Queensland as the leader in this industry globally".

They were decidedly chuffed when CASA got on board in early November 2016, proclaiming via Facebook: “CASA s has agreed to work with the World Drone Challenge (WDC) and our Consultative Committee”.

The CASA representative, they said, “acknowledges the WDC represents a unique world-first for both Queensland and Australia, across the industry, with the potential to set standards for drone regulations around the world”.

Contestants and industry sponsors are being sought, word is getting out via social media, and planning for the two-day event - scheduled to take place in spring next year, is underway.

Seeking heavy lifters with longer flight times

Keegan is confident the Challenge will help farmers learn more about drone technology and how to deploy drones safely to do a variety of tasks on-farm, from tracking livestock to monitoring crops and inspecting irrigation infrastructure.

“The whole idea of the World Drone Challenge is to [showcase] drones outside of the city scenario, where they can have the most value and the most impact by pushing them in terms of capacity and endurance,” he told ABC Rural in late October 2016.

“The reason we’re doing this is because drones … are currently limited to around about 20 kilometres due to battery capacity. And in terms of weight lift capacity, or payload, they’re very limited, to around five or 10 kilograms,” he said.

“In order for drones to become more effective, they need to lift more weight.”

Drones with greater carrying capacity, Keegan explained, would mean farmers could mount different cameras on them depending on the task at hand – for instance, “infrared cameras to … monitor and spot stock, at the same time [monitoring] water levels on troughs out in regional areas”.

Potentially, drones are a boon for farmers - but they'd be more useful with a few modifications.
Potentially, drones are a boon for farmers - but they'd be more useful with a few modifications.
NSW Farmers

Adapting drones for agriculture

Farmers considering implementing drone technology need to determine what tasks they want drones to perform, and consider any impact employing drones might have on livestock and wildlife, advised Keegan.

“What you want to do determines your distance and the type of payload your drone is able to carry,” he explained. “If you're going to be doing trough inspections on a couple of thousand acres, then what you’re looking at is a fixed wing, [which tend] to have a longer duration and operating range. If you’re looking to see if there’s a pump leaking on a particular trough, then you would be looking to use a rotary aircraft: they’re able to do detailed inspections, which eliminates the human altogether.”

Currently, however, drones are required by Australian law to be visible to operators at all times during flight, “which kind of defeats the point”, Keegan said.

“There’s no such thing, as yet, to … use GPS markers to get your drone to automatically do things for you, because it needs be in visual line of sight during operation.”

Busting through barriers to takeup of drones in ag

Several technical and legislative challenges must be surmounted before existiing drone technology can be adapted effectively to farmers' needs, Keegan told ABC Rural. 

As Australian Government legislation stands, “to operate legally beyond visual line of sight, you must present a safety case to CASA … to get that approval", he explained.

Under current CASA regulations, a user must also warn CASA at least five days prior to flying a drone. They can be flown at no more than 400 feet above ground level and cannot be operated in heavily populated areas.

Keegan hopes that if contestants are able to demonstrate safe, reliable operation during next year’s World Drone Challenge, drone use (in agriculture and other industries, including forestry) might become more widespread. 

“The World Drone Challenge is aiming to address those needs – to actually begin change to legislation for those competing teams, which will have impacts on the rest of industry,” he said.

The Challenge is scheduled to take place in Toowoomba, Queensland, in September 2017.  A prize pool in excess of $100,000 as well as “world class research grants” are up for grabs.

Technology geeks, rural MacGyvers and bona-fide drone developers, get on it!

More information and registration

For more information and/or to register your interest in the event, visit the World Drone Challenge website or Facebook page

To participate in the inaugural WDC as entrant, sponsor, supporter or observer, contact the WDC organisers: Josh on 0407 766 141 and Josh@worlddronechallenge.org; or David on 0422 590 552 and David@worlddronechallenge.org.

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