Trial tests cost effectiveness of drone use in agriculture

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Arlie Felton-Taylor

A Queensland trial is analysing the cost effectiveness of using Unmanned Aviation Vehicles (UAV) on farms.

UAVs or drones are the subject of an 18-month trial in Southern Queensland, with the final flights held this week.

The trial was funded through a $50,000 Federal Government grant and run by Landcare and the Australian Controlled Traffic Farming Association.

The trial used crop images to identify nutrition disorders, diseases in plants plus the presence of weeds or pests in the field.

UAV pilot Rob Gilmore, who owns a drone company, said once the UAV took off it was fully automated and pre-programmed.

“It’ll go into a climb out sequence where it climbs out approximately 380 feet above the ground and tracks for the first weigh point in a series of grids, a bit like a search and rescue pattern,” he said.

“Once it levels off it gets into that grid and the autopilot is triggering the camera at defined points to ensure the photos are taken.”

Mr Gilmour explained that they aligned pictures by using a ‘geotag’ which allowed them to stitch the image together.

He said they were able to look at terrain and plant health.

“Today’s flight we’re looking at what we call one centimetre per pixel, so if you were to drill right into one pixel on the image you would be presented with one centimetre on the ground.

“Where it is cost effective is in the small acreage like today, the 80 hectares of horticulture, and also in applications where timeliness is very important.”

Mr Gilmour said the drone he was using was worth around $35,000 but prices varied widely and camera costs were not included.

He said running costs were between $30 and $50 per hour.

Mr Gilmour said it was complicated to work out whether drones would become a common machine in farmers’ sheds.

“Under our current regulations it would be a contractor-based operation through CASA, which is the aviation regulator,” he said.

“To use them for commercial purposes at all you have to have approval which at the moment is quite a lengthy and costly process.”

Mr Gilmour also said the ‘line of sight’ regulation was quite limiting for UAV use, particularly in broadacre agriculture.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-10/drone-technology-on-australian-farms-cost-effectiveness-trial/6535546