Up, up and away

Drones have come a long way and their capabilities in agricultural use are significantly improved. By Lynda Gray.

In Business10 Minutes

Drones have come a long way and their capabilities in agricultural use are significantly improved. By Lynda Gray.

The latest and greatest developments in drones was the topic of a South Otago field day. Over two days more than 80 people came to look and learn about the potential of drones onfarm.

A range of drones were on display, from the portable and entry price level to trailer-towed commercial spray drones.

Drone specialist company Ferntech overviewed the capabilities and uses of Mavic, Phantom and AGRAS spray drones. What became obvious was the big leap forward in drone technology over a short time such as the improved high definition and zoom capabilities of cameras along with the developments in thermal imaging and mapping. Drones could capture more precise and accurate information than before, Luke Johnson of Ferntech said.

A growing area of use was for the spraying of crops and weeds. Spray drones have been around for about five years but there wasn’t huge interest initially because of the small payload capacity of about 10kg, Johnson said. However the development of 30kg payload drones made them a more practical option for farmers.

“The more they can spray and faster makes them a more attractive option for spraying.”

He gave a demonstration of how to plot a grid map for a spraying mission which included continuous and spot spray areas.

Onlooker and an early adopter of drone technology Brett Sanders (Country-Wide, July 2017) was interested to see the spray drones in action. They’re expensive at about $50,000 which includes necessary accessories to map a spraying mission, but he thinks they could work out on extensive hill properties reliant on helicopters for the spraying of crops and weeds.

“If you’re spending $15,000 a year to spray 100ha using a helicopter, that money might be better invested in a drone which could be used for more spraying around the farm.”

However, he says the big turn-off for most farmers would be the mandatory requirement for Civil Aviation Authority 102 certification which applies to owners of drones used for the application of agrichemicals. Certification costs between $2500 to $3500 and takes about a year to complete.

Johnny Bennett, another farmer at the field day was impressed with the improved zoom capabilities of the new drone cameras. He has owned two drones and used them for checking sheep, water troughs and for picking up obvious issues on regular flights over his Te Houka farm. The first, a Phantom 4 went for about three years until it went AWOL on a pre-planned mission, never to return. It was replaced with a second-hand drone, but that met with a crashing end due to a burst of speed at the wrong time. Despite the run-ins he’s still keen on them because they saved a lot of time, especially checking ewes at lambing time.

“The drone could do a circuit around the farm in 20 minutes which was enough to uncover any problems. To do the same driving would have taken four hours.

“There’s greater accuracy than with the older drones. Often I’d see there was a problem but not the detail whereas I probably could now. I’ll buy another one at some stage, but it’s not a priority at the moment.”

The field days organised by the Otago South River Care group with MPI funding attracted a lot of interest.

“We asked local farmers about innovations they wanted to know more about, and drones was a reoccurring topic,” Rebecca Begg, group coordinator, said.

“A lot are interested in the technology but not necessarily at the tipping point of buying one. The idea of the field day was to let them see the technology in action and start more conversations.”

Drone rules and regs

You don’t need a licence to fly a drone in NZ provided it is less than 25kg fully loaded and is not being used for the application of agrichemicals.

However, all drone users need to follow the Civil Aviation Authority Part 101 drone rules.

Go to: www.aviation.govt.nz/drones/part-101-rules-for-drones/

Pilots of drones used for agrichemical application need CAA Part 102 certification. This takes about 12 months and costs $2500-$3500. Go to: www.aviation.govt.nz/drones/part-102-certification-for-drones/

New versus second-hand

There is a second-hand drone market, but Brett Sanders thinks buying new is probably the better way to go. Newer models have intuitive technology so they’re easier to use. A new release model, a Mavic Mini 3 which retails for about $1400 and includes one battery could be a good option. If a control base and screen were included it would cost $1700-$2000.

“For that amount you should be able to get good quality pictures.”

His advice for buying second-hand is to go with a reputable brand, and check that the batteries are in working order and hold their charge.

A Mavic Mini 3 is a possible option but Luke Johnson said it wouldn’t withstand the wind conditions on exposed farms. A better choice was a Mavic Air 2S for about $2500 which would provide quality video and photography.

Farmers wanting a ‘barking drone’ and thermal imagery features would need a Mavic Enterprise Advanced or similar ($9500).

A ready-to-go AGRAS spray drone with a 30kg payload and supporting mapping functions costs about $50,000. This would include three batteries which could be rotated to enable continuous spraying.

Spot on

Covid led to the start-up of Bill Paterson’s drone contracting business. Until March 2020 Bill’s main income was from helicopter flying tourists in and around the Queenstown southern lakes region.

That business dried up with Covid leading Bill back to the family-owned Waikaka Station where he was able to combine helping on the farm with development of a drone contracting business.

In January he started out with a $70,000 XAG P30 which has a 16kg payload. It’s been used for spraying and seeding work throughout Otago and Southland. Bill’s mapped and precision-sprayed areas for thistles and insect strike, and spot sprayed for particular weeds. He’s also reseeded areas of crops that didn’t establish due to the dry summer. There’s potential for more seeding jobs once he gets a bigger payload system in place.

“There’s a lot of potential but there’s still a lot of R&D to do.”

Self-taught pilot

Brett Sanders is a self-taught drone user. He soldered together his first drone in 2013 from a basic frame with add-ons and bought a DJI Phantom in 2016. It was used a lot for mustering and was especially good at hunting out elusive Merinos from steep schist and briar country.

Brett also used it to accurately map the slope and drainage of land. The Phantom had probably flown the length of the country when it was replaced with a Mavic Enterprise Advanced last year for $10,000.

“It’s a lot of money, but I’m an experienced user and know how to get the most out of them,” Brett said.

The thermal imaging is great for tracking down sheep and pests such as wild pigs and the zoom power of the camera means it’s possible to identify the ear tag numbers of ewes in a paddock without disturbing them.

At the field day farmers were interested to hear about Brett’s dog barking drone which had reduced the workload of Matangi’s working dog team.

“We still use dogs, but they’re probably not on to it as they used to be. When the drone comes out they sit back and watch.”