The Drone Revolution and Australian Agriculture Part Two: Case Studies and Practical Benefits

Geoff Trowbridge - Future Directions International

Type: Article
Knowledge level: Intermediate

Farm Table says:

Another succinct, information-laden article. Also provides a simple ROI calculation at the end that finds a wheatbelt farmer with 20,00ha would payback their drone investment in approximately six weeks.

In Part Two of this two part series, Mr Trowbridge discusses specific applications drones/UAS are bringing to the agricultural industry.

Agriculture’s prime concern is not the drone’s speed or flexibility, but the type and quality of data it can obtain.

The paper presents analysis on practice uses of drones and findings from case studies. The key takeway points are:

  1. When compared to satellite imagery and manned aircraft, drones cost a fraction of the cost and much improved resolution.
  2. New way to measure what is in their pastures.
  3. Quadcopters are more appropriate for small, intensive plots.
  4. Fixed wing drones offer a much more cost effective way to gather actionable,
    real time information about what is happening out there, right now, on much larger properties.
  5. NDVI images can differentiate between healthy plants (growing well or ready for harvest) and unhealthy plants which may indicate stress, nutrient deficiency, pests, weeds or other problems.
  6. Aerial surveillance enables dairy farmers to work out whether they have enough feed or biomass for their cattle and whether it is time to move them to another paddock or feedlot
  7. By analysing narrow wavelength bands reflected from plant tissue,farmers can tell a lot about plant health and composition, crop growth rates, make timely changes to farm management practices and forecast crop yield.
  8. Mid-Field Weed Identification
  9. Assessing Mid-Season Crop Growth Rates
  10. Variable-Rate Fertility: By using drone-generated, variable-rate application (VRA) maps to determine the strength of nutrient uptake within a single field, the farmer can apply differing amounts of fertiliser to struggling, medium and healthy areas, thereby decreasing fertiliser costs and boosting yields.
  11. Irrigation Equipment Inspection: Managing multiple irrigation pivots is difficult, especially for large growers that have many crops spread out across a region.
  12. Monitoring Cattle Movements: Drones are a sound option for monitoring herds from overhead, tracking the quantity and activity level of animals on a property. They are especially helpful for night-time monitoring and to locate lost stock.
  13. Evaluation of Rehabilitation Programs: Regular aerial surveys then provide a rapid, comprehensive way of monitoring and measuring progress toward rehabilitation.
  14. Bushfire Detection and Monitoring. fly at lower altitudes and at much slower speeds, allowing them to get a clear image of fireprone areas
  15. Managing Prescribed Burns. Drones can also be used to monitor prescribed burns and coordinate the location of fire lines with ground crews to ensure the burn is occurring as planned and no equipment or personnel are threatened.
  16.  Farmers growing high value, short lifecycle, intensive crops who capture data on a frequent basis can map the health and vigour of their crops, observing changes over time, whether growth and health benchmarks are being met and confident of what the yield will be. Increased yields of 10 per cent are commonly reported in table green vegetables, by orchardists, banana farmers, olive growers and others.

How is data processed by drones?

“In a typical, 20-minute quadcopter flight, a drone will take around 10,000 photographs from a systematic grid pattern using predetermined track width, overlap and vertical or oblique look angles. The photographs are geotagged and recorded in a memory card in the camera. The memory card is transferred to a computer or laptop with specialised software. The software ‘stitches’ all the photographs together to generate point clouds, digital surfaces and terrain models and ortho-mosaics from which volumes, angles and distances can be readily measured. Processing the data may take hours depending on the number of images and the processing power of the computer. Once processed, the farmer knows exactly where the problem areas are and can take whatever remedial action is warranted.”

What is the return on investment?

Example:

  • A wheat belt farmer with 20,000ha,
  • Yield of 2.5 tonnes per Ha at $180 per tonne 
  • Expect a cheque of $9m
  • A five per cent improvement in yield would be $450k
  • Payback period on a $50k drone, with all the necessary technological capability, would be approximately six weeks.

2017 - Australia - Geoff Trowbridge - Future Directions International
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