Thursday, December 7, 2023

Drones overcome early limits

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Five years after drones suddenly came over the farm horizon they have begun to move from the nice novelty option to being another tool that brings the usual uses and limitations of any device. Richard Rennie spoke to Jonathan Kubiak of drone specialist DJI Ferntech about the latest advances and what is still holding them back.
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The ability of New Zealand farmers to take technology and adapt it to their needs has become evident in the way they have picked up on drones and technology is now starting to catch up with how they are used.

“For many farmers who use drones the main role is for surveying their property, for checking over stock, troughs or fencelines to save time and that has been a use from early on. But what we are now finding is that the camera technology has caught up with this use,” DJI Ferntech spokesman Jonathan Kubiak said.

“Rather than simply using digital zoom cameras latest drone technology has true optical zoom cameras producing far better clarity and resolution with images. Match that with significantly improved stability and you have a drone platform that meets that need to be able to see more of the farm from a distance.”

The latest model has a 12 megapixel camera capable of capturing 4k video, something barely dreamed of only three years ago.

Features include a loudspeaker, making it suitable for mustering and herding stock.

Bay of Plenty farmer David Rowlands uses the machine for stock surveillance at lambing and calving, covering the farm from the homestead quicker than travelling to mobs himself. 

Martinborough farmer Ben Lutyens of Riversdale Station is also one of the first to use the Mavic drone. He bought it for its bark to move stock on the 4000ha property.

He has a selection of noises to help overcome stock becoming familiar with any one in particular. 

His arsenal of barks kicks off with Scottish-born singer songwriter Paolo Nutini’s music. Other alert options include a Huntaway’s bark and the very analogue sound of stones being rattled in an old drench container.

“With mustering it is all about the position of the drone and where the sound gets projected from, which influences which way the stock will move.”

Having owned the drone for only a few weeks he believes he will find other applications and is confident other devices will be added to the platform.

“I am also interested in having a thermal camera to detect stock in bush areas.”

Kubiak said with many farmers wanting a drone to inspect remote areas the camera advances have been welcome but so too has the extension of drone range.

“Two to three years ago we had advanced ranges of about 1km, at best. 

“But with far more solid radio signals now used they can go 5km to 8km, albeit they are still governed by rules requiring line of sight. In addition, over that distance they can also deliver HD quality images.”

Real time delivery of images rather than waiting for recorded information to be downloaded is helping step the equipment into more management roles, helping optimise crop performance in particular.

Kubiak expects rapid growth in crop-monitoring technology now the optics have improved, with crop health imaging likely to form a new income stream for agronomy and fertiliser companies, given the cost barrier might discourage farmers investing in the kit themselves.

Even with only eight farms on board providing such a service could become economic. 

The addition of infra-red and thermal cameras and the ability to distinguish weeds from crops take the technology from a fly-by troubleshooter to an advanced management tool feeding information into crop analysis programmes. 

They can help predict yields, water shortages and weed and disease risks before they become endemic.

Kubiak said sales to farmers tend to be from across the entire agricultural spectrum and include several agricultural contractors offering drone analysis as a service. 

He has not yet seen an aerial spreading service using drones but has seen former aerial operators move to drone operation.

However, the limiting factor to drone size and weight remains governed by batteries. 

While the on-board technology has advanced with dizzying speed, battery technology has remained static.

“We are really waiting for replacement battery technology and for that reason flight time remains only around half an hour. 

“Overall though, I believe drones have probably plateaued in size.”

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