Drone lift-off nears countdown

Rueben HaleThe West Australian
Darkan sheep farmer Andrew Ritchie has plans to one day monitor his grazing sheep remotely by using a drone fitted with a high tech precision camera device.
Camera IconDarkan sheep farmer Andrew Ritchie has plans to one day monitor his grazing sheep remotely by using a drone fitted with a high tech precision camera device. Credit: Rueben Hale

Darkan farm management consultant Andrew Ritchie is working on a prototype pasture prediction system that could one day even count livestock.

Mr Ritchie says he is only months away from launching a drone fitted with a high-tech imaging camera capable of predicting pasture growth early in the season.

The drone platform will carry the smallest and lightest Sentera NDVI cameras available, which will deliver real-time insights into the health of a pasture.

Mr Ritchie’s program collects images by field and year, tiles them into complete maps correlated with data from other sources such as Pastures from Space and handheld technology.

“I will be able to make approximations of pasture production using algorithmic models, which I have already made,” he said.

“The big advantage will be that farmers will be able to access predictive data much earlier in the season than they can at the moment which can assist them in making more informed choices.

“I hope that by the end of the year I will be able to estimate dry matter production in a paddock with it.”

Mr Ritchie said farmers traditionally measured pastures by eye, which is a tedious process.

“The procedure involves using a calibration process involving cutting quadrats, which is why most people don’t do it,” he said.

“The Pastures from Space program is another way of doing it, but it comes with limitations of large pixels at the moment and is sometimes unreliable when it is cloudy.

“This system will also give very quick and precise real-time grasses production updates.”

Mr Ritchie said the system’s ability to count stock is a pipeline dream. “When you look at sheep from the air they look like cells in a Petri dish, and they use image analysis to count the cells,” he said.

“The problem is for the sheep industry young people are looking around for new technology but nothing much new has happen-ed.

“My vision is to put the drone into the sky that will capture imagery of the sheep, and I am working on software at the moment to operate it.

“This will deliver more accurate, more repeatable stock counts, which is a very time consuming and difficult thing for farmers to do at the moment.”

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