Drones the future of agriculture

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian
Keynote presenter Darrin Lee of Mingenew, Gavin Thomas from CBH Merredin and Garry Harvey of Suncorp Bank.
Camera IconKeynote presenter Darrin Lee of Mingenew, Gavin Thomas from CBH Merredin and Garry Harvey of Suncorp Bank. Credit: The West Australian

Farming from the air using drone technology could be the future for Australian agriculture.

Mingenew farmer Darrin Lee said while drone technology was still being trialled for agricultural use, it could become an important tool for farmers.

Mr Lee, a board member of the Mingenew-Irwin Group, received research and development funding from the Council of Grain Grower Organisations to participate in a technology trial.

Speaking at the WA No-Tillage Farmers Association Crop Updates in Dowerin, Mr Lee said his decisions were now based on images from a hexacopter drone with the ability to fly 16km at 90km/h and spend 45 minutes in the air.

High-resolution pictures provide information on weeds, crop maturity, soil types, crop nutrition and yield mapping.

Mr Lee said the project initially used a quadcopter, but it became obvious the four-rotor machine could not handle variable weather conditions and did not have a reliable flight pattern.

"It was the dinghy before we got the boat, but we learnt lots from this and a lot of those earlier experiences were very positive," Mr Lee said.

He said combined with other technology, such as weather stations and moisture probes, the information from the drones allowed him to make significant savings in many areas of his farming business.

"The hexacopter takes six frames every second, which allows us to see where the weeds are, and turns our self-propelled sprayer into a green-seeker or weed-seeker," Mr Lee said. "When it comes to the cost, we are working on $1/ha to put the drone in the air. .

"We've had some really big wins in the last couple of months with this technology, particularly in regard to weeds."

The information from the drones and other technology, combined with historical data, is put into the Crop Manager program which allows Mr Lee to make decisions based on objective data.

"I want to know, at any given time, the phenology of the plant," Mr Lee said. "The interaction between the weather station, the computer program and the drones allows us to start getting some answers."

The technology is linked to his smartphone and tablet computer.

"The computer program might send my phone a message to say that current weather conditions, combined with the current crop stage, resulted in a rust problem at this same point in the crop cycle five years ago," Mr Lee said.

"Its very retrospective, but once you have built up the data, this is intellectual property for your farm that is extremely valuable."

Mr Lee said the cost of a hexacopter started from about $7000 for a base model, excluding the camera.

"Honestly, I think we are 12 months away from having this technology readily available. We still have to get the flying of the machine 100 per cent secure and safe." he said.

The Crop Manager program, while still in development, is already commercially available.

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