Arlie Felton-Taylor and David Claughton
A high flying drone with infrared cameras could be the latest high-tech tool to deal with the very costly problem in Australia.
Official estimates put the cost of feral pests like pigs, wild dogs, and rabbits at $1 billion each year in lost agricultural productivity.
The cost, calculated by the Invasive Animal Cooperative Research Centre, is a serious burden for landholders plus the Local, State, and Commonwealth Governments.
Now an Australian company, Ninox Robotics, is coming at the issue of pest control from another angle; the sky.
Managing Director, Marcus Ehrlich, said the company is trialling a suite of technology, using a military grade drone, across two states.
Mr Ehrlich said it is the first time anyone has been given this special clearance from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to do these types of trials.
“We’ve got beyond visual line of site, which allows us to go a long way from our launch point or ground control station,” he said.
“We’ve got the ability to fly above the 400-foot altitude ceiling, about 500 metres, which allows us to cover some serious ground.
“We have the ability also to fly at night which is important with our thermal grade military camera.”
Mr Ehrlich explained it is that infrared camera which lets them locate pest animals by stealth.
“It allows the heat signature of invasive pests to stand out enormously from the ground.”
The drone itself has military grade capabilities and, as Mr Ehrlich described, is quite a big aircraft.
“It’s three metres in width with its wing-span, it’s 1.5 metres long and weighs about 10 kilograms.”
The Ninox Managing Director adds that he cannot disclose the price of the drone as it is commercial in confidence, but suffice to say it is a lot.
“It’s well into six figures,” Mr Ehrlich said
He said the fact the technology they have allows the vision to be viewed live is very important.
“The drone itself passes the vision in real-time to the ground control station, where we can see it on computers and where we can give what’s known as a mobile computer to farmers, which is a passive device where they can see what the drone is looking at in real time.”
Drones are currently criss-crossing a mixed cropping and cattle property near a town called Moonie in Southern Queensland and there are further trials scheduled for New South Wales.
Near Moonie, feral pigs are an enormous problem, with local farmers already pooling funds together to pay for professional aerial shooters on almost a quarterly basis.
Warren Urquhart is part of one such group and said it is something they factor into their running costs.
“We get the chopper and do it cooperatively and share the cost and it has been working out about $600 to $800 (per landholder) each time, so we do that about four times a year.”
Mr Urquhart is hosting the drone trial at his place ‘Warrowa’, south west of Moonie, and said if the drone trials are successful it will give them another option.
“Once the drone locates them (pests) you could send in a team, a ground team perhaps and try and locate them and get them there, or if you did happen to have the helicopter about you could send the helicopter in and clean them up that way.”
So the question comes back to cost effectiveness, especially for landholders and while this is in the trial phase, Mr Ehrlich said he had some early indicative prices.
“We haven’t got our costs down exactly, but we think we’ll be relatively competitive with some of the other pest control measures that’ll be out there,” he said.
“We’re looking at about $3,000 to $3,500 per sortie, which is a four-hour flight and roughly works out as a bit less than a grand ($1,000) per hour.”
Mr Urqhart said it is something farmers in his area will be interested in looking at, particularly if they can continue their practice of sharing the cost amongst the district.
“You need scale to bring the price down per hectare, but I think we’ve got the answer to that,” he said.
“Our group acts cooperatively and if we just average and share the cost it keeps it well down per hectare.
“Everything helps and the technology is improving all the time and that’s just the nature of technology, how quickly things advance and when those opportunities come up you have to take on that technology and make it work for you, make it help you in your business.”