Drone and mapping tech

Research into advanced mapping and drone technology aims to help sugarcane growers improve on-farm practices and Great Barrier Reef Water quality.

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) researcher Marcus Bulstrode said the high-resolution mapping technology allows growers to pre-map vine weeds in mature sugarcane fields and rapidly target and spot spray weeds with a drone.

‘Growers can greatly reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides, saving money, time and effort, and decrease run-off into local waterways,’ Marcus said.

Watch how drones are used for spot spray applications.

The technology

DAF research into using drone technology to spray weeds originated after discussions with Tully sugarcane farmer Dick Camilleri. The DAF Coastal Farming Systems team worked with Dick for several years looking at the potential of drones to assist sugarcane growers both with mapping variability in the paddock and then later as a precision agriculture tool. During this early development period the drone industry started producing commercially available models. Using the learnings from working with Dick, DAF partnered with the Innisfail Canegrowers organisation to purchase a spray drone to trial. Over a three-year period, the drone was put through its paces across farms. This trial proved very successful and DAF has now purchased two new drones to advance this field of research. The new drones are a DJI Agras (spray drone) and an RTK corrected mapping drone.

‘The RTK drone can map a wide range of cropping situations at cm level accuracy. This accuracy has allowed producers to very accurately understand weed pressure and the level of crop yield variability across farms,’ Marcus said.

‘Through this technology, growers can reconsider the scale of management units from blocks to zones within the block (intra-paddock).

‘Advancements in drone hardware and software range from flight control apps to 3D point cloud creation, giving growers more tools for their toolbox to support on-farm decision making.’

Prior to purchasing the latest equipment, Marcus said DAF spent several years trialling various drones and specialised software.

‘The complexity of the technology and its rapid development often presented barriers to uptake,’ he said.

‘To a large extent the technology is ready to go. Growers and agri-businesses can purchase equipment to support their farming enterprise right now.

‘Due to the nature of digital technology, advancements occur rapidly. The new equipment, whilst doing similar operations to the previous versions, can now do more work more accurately.’

Marcus said the mapping drone, for example, is now spatially accurate to within a few centimetres and the spray drone can cover a much larger area. The other significant change Marcus described is the ability for two drones to work together as one system.

‘The RTK corrected mapping drone can create a 3D model of the area to be targeted by the spray drone,’ Marcus said.

‘This means that, from a 3D perspective, the spray drone knows what to expect as it negotiates the landscape. Even in a complex orchard situation with trees many metres high, it can accurately fly within a few metres of the target plant.’

Benefits for agribusiness

Advanced mapping and drone technology provide significant benefits to growers.

The technology:

  • supports on-farm decision making, profitability and sustainability
  • reduces the use of pesticides and herbicides
  • saves on pesticide costs
  • has potential to improve reef water quality and reduce herbicide run-off into local waterways.

Next steps

According to Marcus, specialised software is the space to watch.

‘As we have seen with the mapping and spray drone combination, systems are becoming more connected,’ he said.

‘In addition to this there are companies working in the artificial intelligence and machine learning space to provide automated products that can interrogate the photogrammetry to identify specific characters.

‘This could be the identification of specific weeds or aspects related to change over time for the crop.’

DAF is currently investigating the ability to develop a range of information products to assist growers.

Contact: Marcus Bulstrode via email at Marcus.Bulstrode@daf.qld.gov.au
Partners: Innisfail Canegrowers
Location: Innisfail
Industries: Sugarcane
Tech type: Robots, Autonomy, Sensors, Geographical Information System, Global Positioning System, Artificial Intelligence.

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