The flight of drones in farming

Queensland agriculture has always been a fertile hub for new technologies and tools to assist with operations and yield improvements - but a new player is strengthening operations from the sky.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are being used across a range of innovative Queensland farms. These systems have an unrealised potential to improve crop yield, control cattle and support asset management. Historically drones are better known for their role in defence operations due to their ability to be customised and their remote capabilities.

By 2028, the Asia Pacific market for agricultural drones systems is projected to grow by more than 300 per cent to $2.9 billion AUD, up from $647 million last year (2020).

In this article, Queensland business Mirragin provides the latest insights on the emergence of drone technology.

Large drone hovering low over sugarcane with blue sky background.
The DJI T16 agricultural spray drone used by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

More than eyes in the sky

Drones come in various shapes and sizes, from Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) to Multi-Rotor or Fixed Wing, the type typically used in traditional aircraft.

The advantages of drones include their low cost, lightweight design, accurate data collection ability and pilot remotely. Today, drones have become common tools of the trade in various industries including agriculture, construction and mining.

In Queensland agriculture, one example of drones being used is to help sugarcane growers improve on-farm practices and Great Barrier Reef Water quality.

How drone technology is being used

Water and asset management

By flying safely and at relatively high speeds, drones can cover large and small properties quickly to manage assets, resources, and land. Many farms are now using drones to check and maintain water levels in dams and other resources previously inaccessible whilst removing any risk to the operator or surrounding area.

Stock management

As herd sizes increase and farms grow, it can be difficult to accurately manage and maintain stock counts and numbers.

To overcome these challenges many farmers are turning to drones to conduct accurate counts and identify any areas of concern from afar.

By fitting a camera (often referred to as a payload) to a drone, farmers can keep track of stock movements for future analysis. The advantages of this extend to cost reductions, increased productivity, and greater efficiency in operations.

Crop yield and care

When maintaining crops and fields, it is important to survey the crop to inform management decisions so that the crops receive the right treatment at the right time. Drones help reduce the time that this takes and supports finding areas where the crop needs special attention.

With precise and accurate sensors, drones can determine water stress, low crop nutrients and poor soil health. By implementing a drone program, a farming enterprise can become more economically and environmentally efficient through targeting the areas that need most care.

Help labour allocations

While there may be concerns regarding job security and replacement, it has been shown across numerous industries that technology implementation has advantages for improving worker capabilities and training opportunities.

Other advantages of drones

The advantages of using drones in agriculture include:

  • access to a technology continually improving with vast benefits in the next decade
  • high speed air vehicle that can traverse a farm or crop much faster than people
  • highly accurate and precise data that can be analysed and examined in many ways
  • relatively cheap to operate and maintain, with an ability to reduce long-term operating costs.

The sky's the limit

The global agricultural drone technology market is forecast to hit $8.4 billion AUD in 2028, up from $1.9 billion AUD in 2020.

As drones and other emerging technologies become the norm, there will be exciting improvements as the unmanned technology matures further. Like the evolution of the mobile phone, drones will also become more and more sophisticated, user friendly, and common in everyday work on farms.

Research in the US suggests agricultural drone use is significantly impacting the bottom line of some farmers’ budgets.

Research from the American Farm Bureau Federation says the average U.S. farmer using drones sees a return on investment of $12 USD per acre for corn, and $2 to $3 per acre for soybeans and wheat.

Current regulations require a drone to be flown a certain distance from an operator, but it is expected future capabilities will allow drones to fly long ranges beyond the visual line of sight. Check the Civil Aviation Safety Authority website for information on these rules.

Great developments are predicted for the drone industry in terms of the sensors and scanners to be mounted to future technology.

Unmanned and automated vehicle technology is rapidly developing in marine and under water work and research environments. Automated under water vehicles, or AUVs, possess technology to capture pictures of the seabed, fish and surrounding areas to help researchers in oceanography or habitat research.

AUVs are also used in the in the oil and gas industry to carry out inspection activities and by defence for search operations. Automated drone technology is in relatively infancy in agriculture, but some automated drones are being used for data collection, automated seeding and pollination without the need of operators.

How to use drones on your farm

The benefits and applications of drone use in any business are increasing rapidly and this it likely to continue as the technology is further utilised and improved. One of the most rapid areas of change has been in the software that facilitate and enhance drone operations. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a great example of customised software the is increasing the capability of drones.

In Australia there are strict rules and regulations that must be followed before any drone is used on a farm. Check the Civil Aviation Safety Authority website for more information on the rules.

Plan ahead

The greatest outcomes for businesses occur when the technology is carefully planned for and implemented. The technology is evolving, but there are experts and support available to help you find drone technology suitable for your application.

Read about how you can get started and where to find a tech provider or product.

References

Watch drones in action

How growers are using drones

Weed control with drones

Last updated: 26 Sep 2022