Research into advanced mapping and drone technology by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) is helping sugarcane growers improve on-farm practices and Great Barrier Reef Water quality.

Since 2017, DAF has been using the technology to survey thousands of hectares of farmland in Great Barrier Reef catchments across Queensland.

Eyes in the sky, decisions on the ground

Drone surveys by DAF allowed the trial of high-resolution images to show differences in cane crop conditions.

Crops growing unevenly or in poor health, can have their location geo-referenced to allow accurate on-ground analysis, such as soil sampling.

This means the cane is managed in separate “zones”. Fertilizers can be applied appropriate to crop conditions, rather than one “blanket” application across the whole paddock which reduces the risk of causing chemical run off into waterways.

Better farm management

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) researcher Marcus Bulstrode said the high-resolution mapping technology from drones allows growers to better manage their farms.

‘Benefits span being able to identify areas of poor crop yield, supports zonal application of ameliorants (i.e. fertiliser), mapping weeds distribution and spot spraying weeds with a drone,’ Marcus said.

‘Growers can increase crop yield, greatly reduce their use of pesticides, better target their fertiliser application, save money, reduce time and effort, and decrease contaminated run-off into local waterways and the reef,’ Marcus said.

Watch how drones are used to map variability in crop yield.

Watch how drones are used for spot spray applications.

Technology for environmental benefit

DAF research aims to increase production and reduce farm run-off or water containing pollutants.

‘This process is both a win for growers and for the environment,’ Marcus says.

‘The great thing about drone technology is it provides base maps for other precision equipment. One example is the integration of variable-rate fertiliser boxes. This technology allows fertiliser rates to be altered while the tractor is being driven,’ Marcus said.

Drones for weed spraying

DAF research into using drone technology to spray weeds originated after engaging with Tully sugarcane farmer Dick Camilleri.

The DAF Coastal Farming Systems team worked with Dick by trialling drones for mapping variability in the paddock and then later as a precision agriculture tool.

This success of this research led to a partnership with the Innisfail Canegrowers organisation and purchase of a spray drone.

After three years of trials drone spraying, DAF upgraded the program with two new drones to advance this field of research.

Drone accuracy and capability on the up

The new drones being used in North Queensland are a DJI Agras (spray drone) and an RTK corrected mapping drone.

‘The RTK drone can map a wide range of cropping situations to within a centimetre of accuracy. This accuracy mean producers can use drones to 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 to support on-farm decision making.’

Drone use becoming easier

Marcus said the barriers to entry with drone use has lowered considerably.

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

‘Growers and agri-businesses can purchase equipment off the shelf to support their farming enterprise right now.

‘Even though new drones we’re seeing can perform similar operations to the previous versions, the outputs of the work are more accurate.’

Marcus said spray drones have capacity to cover much larger areas than earlier versions. Drones can also work in tandem on tasks 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.’

What’s next for drones?

Marcus says specialised software is the space to watch.

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

‘Companies are working in the artificial intelligence and machine learning space to provide automated products that can interrogate the photogrammetry to identify specific characters.

‘This will create major advancements in the identification of specific weeds or aspects related to change over time for the crop.’

Last updated: 08 Feb 2023