Flying technology aiding dairy industry


By Kate Prestt

TECHNOLOGY was in the spotlight at the 2013 Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture Dairy Centre Open Day.

The Oktokopter was front and centre at the third annual open day with the theme Precision Dairy Farming.

The event was held last week at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture’s Dairy Research Facility at Elliott and attracted 93 people from across the industry.

For the past three years UTAS has used the small commercial drone to examine the health of vegetation through thermal, multi-spectral and still-imaging cameras attached to its undercarriage.

Dr Arko Lucieer, a senior lecturer in remote sensing and geographic information systems in the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania discussed its value to the agricultural industry at the open day.

Dr Lucieer founded the TerraLuma research group in 2010, which sits within the School of Geography and Environmental Studies.

The group focuses on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and the integration of small sensors for environmental remote sensing and aerial surveys.

He said one of the important messages was that the drones being researched by UTAS were not being used to spy.

“There has been a lot of negative news about their use being dangerous or that they invade privacy,” Dr Lucieer said.

“Our main goal is to help farmers and farm managers to better understand their crop, pasture and vines, giving a bird’s- eye view.”

Over the past four years, the research group has worked on UAS and the integration of specialised earth observation sensors, such as multispectral and hyperspectral sensors, thermal cameras, and laser scanners, to map and monitor different aspects of the environment at ultra-high resolutions on- demand.

Dr Lucieer said the drones were used just like you would a plane or a satellite and the Oktokopter in particular was chosen for its stable platform.

“For us it is a mini satellite so we can carry the sensors that we need to study the environment,” he said.

The Oktokopter is operated by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot, certified through the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

The drone can take off and land by itself but Dr Lucieer said from a safety perspective the UTAS researchers did it manually.

“The Oktokopter flies to a given height between 50-100 metres above the ground and then the autopilot takes over and it flies to GPS waypoints,” Dr Lucieer said.

“It can fly between 5-10 minutes and in that time it can cover around two hectares.”

The Oktokopter was developed for the photography and cinema industry.

The TerraLuma researchers fly a multispectral sensor that can detect infrared light, which gives an indication of the health and density of crop or pasture.

“In Tasmania the agricultural industry could use it over poppies,” Dr Lucieer said.

“We’ve already flown over a lettuce farm and vineyards to see the vigour of vines.”

Dr Lucieer gave an overview of what research has been done to date but was interested in collaborating with dairy farmers and the Dairy Centre to use the technology for pasture management.

“Our main goal is to fly over these farms and map how lush and dense the grass is,” Dr Lucieer said.

“Farm managers can use these maps to make decisions about where the stock can graze.”

Measurements of height and density of pasture is currently done on quad bikes.

Dr Lucieer said the problem with this was that not only was it laborious, not all the area was covered.

UTAS has four Oktokopters of different sizes and which one is used depends on the weight of the sensors carried.

Dr Lucieer said UTAS researchers were building a new Oktokopter prototype specifically designed to carry a heavier sensor that weighs five kilograms and trialling small planes.

“We have three different planes ranging from two metre wingspan to 3.5 metre wingspan,” he said.

The Oktokopter is great to cover small areas in great detail but Dr Lucieer said for larger areas a fixed wing drone would be best.

TIA Dairy Centre leader Dr Richard Rawnsley said the open day was a chance to not only showcase what has been done in research over the past year but a chance to get feedback and interact with the industry.

“It is also a good opportunity for industry to get together and for us (TIA) to also acknowledge the contribution we get from our investors – Dairy Australia, DairyTas, Tasmanian government and UTAS – and highlight the work that we’ve been able to achieve,” Dr Rawnsley said.

Craig Mackenzie, renowned New Zealand farmer and inventor of Smart N, a fertiliser application system technology used to reduce the amount of nitrogen, was another of the guest speakers.

TIA is in its first year trialling the technology.

Mr Mackenzie discussed the benefits he had seen having used it on his farm for the past three years.

He said while there was a hardware cost involved, larger farmers or contractors using Smart N could find it useful to not only help the environment but also be more profitable.

Dr Rawnsley said the Dairy Centre’s role was to look at what technology exists, how can it be adopted and was it useful.

“It’s about making industry aware of what is there and what is possible, not saying that it has to go that way,” Dr Rawnsley said.

“Our role is to evaluate technology and provide some independent analysis.”

He said the centre also worked closely with the developers of technology to see what works, what doesn’t and how the information could be handled and made use of.

“The growth of the dairy industry creates a lot of opportunities,” he said.