Could unmanned helicopters be, as their manufacturer claims, ”the future of the agriculture industry”?
About a dozen farmers gathered on a farm near Ngapara on Thursday to have a look at the 99kg, 2.9m nose-to-tail, Yamaha RMAX in a simulation of spraying gorse along a fenceline, a creek, and in a tucked away gully.
Dairy farmer Grant Isbister, of Enfield, hosted the Yamaha Sky Division New Zealand demonstration on his Queens Flat run-off.
And while he said he was impressed, he was not saying whether he was sold on the idea.
”It’s quite a cool toy,” he said.
”I’m sure someone would like it for Christmas.”
With the price of conventional spraying from helicopters becoming ever cheaper, he said, it could only be the ”wee blocks that are going to be cost-efficient”.
”It depends what they charge at the end of the day, that’s the big thing.”
Yamaha Sky Division New Zealand business development manager Geoff Lamb, of Auckland, said the per hectare rate he would charge would be ”definitely” competitive, but he was there to showcase the technology, which is new to New Zealand.
The Yamaha RMAX was the only one of its kind in New Zealand.
It had been certified to fly in July and, though it had been flown in the North Island, a Methven demonstration on Wednesday and yesterday’s demonstration in Waitaki were its only South Island flights.
The technology was not new, Mr Lamb said.
The unmanned helicopters for a line-of-sight controller were developed in Japan 15 years ago as an ageing workforce in a changing environment required innovation for seeding rice paddies.
Now 3000 were in operation, mostly used in the rice farming industry.
He said there were about 300 in South Korea, Australia had less than a dozen, in the United States there was ”a handful”, and Thailand had ”a couple”.
But Mr Lamb said the machines’ versatility could make them popular – he argued for their use in spraying, frost protection and equipped with cameras to be used in transmission line inspections – and the company’s ”game-changer” would be available ”next year at the latest”.
Unlike the much smaller drones already gaining popularity with farmers, the Yamaha RMAX did not come ”off the shelf” with autopilot capabilities yet – but in Australia Yamaha was near to changing that.
”There’s not too far to go to get there, but it needs to be proven,” Mr Lamb said.
”That’s the holy grail for us.”
The Yamaha RMAX with 16-litre spray capacity could compete with a two-person team and tractor unit spraying with backpacks, and while Mr Lamb said on the flats the job could be done ”10 different ways”, spraying from the air at 3m to 4m would have its advantages in the harder to reach places.
”Up in the hills, that’s for us.”
Mr Lamb said he had put in a tender to Auckland City Council for aquatic weed spraying; whereas the conventional approach would be to use a dinghy or air boat to get into weeds to spray them by hand, the unmanned helicopter would be ”cheaper, faster and safer”.
”No-one’s in the water,” he said.
”I don’t think anyone could argue with the safety aspect of it.”
He said the $160,000 price tag for the machine would likely not attract individual farmers, but perhaps contractors who serviced a district, instead.