17 November 2023

When Queensland stockman Luke Chaplain set out to prove drones can offer a safer and more cost-effective alternative to helicopter mustering, little did he know the incredible journey he was about to embark on.

Based in Cloncurry on the family’s Malakoff Station, Luke formed his AgTech company SkyKelpie in a bid to become the first person in the world to commercialise the use of drones to herd animals.

‘It all started with a cheap little red drone I got in Hong Kong, when I was trying to get some heifers into the yards,’ Luke says.

‘We were having issues on the farm—it’s hard to get labour, and helicopter mustering is quite expensive.’

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Meat & Livestock Australia and Nuffield Australia have been supporting Luke’s study of the use of drones for mustering livestock, using drones with special zoom and thermal cameras that assist in locating the animals, and aerial stockmanship techniques that keep the animals in a cooperative frame of mind, light and responsive to the drone.

Luke says the cost and safety benefits of using drones to muster livestock were just a few of the many benefits to the livestock industry.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said there had been 133 aerial mustering incidents reported since the start of 2010, but despite the obvious benefits of the technology, there are still some obstacles to be overcome.

Under current Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations, users must be able to see the drone at all times.

‘That’s a problem when you’re mustering over thousands of hectares,’ says Luke.

Luke became the first grazier in the country permitted by CASA to fly beyond visual line of sight over the family property for livestock mustering purposes, and is continuing to work with the authority to find a workable solution for agriculture, with the assistance of DAF.

Luke’s SkyKelpie company continues to go from strength to strength, with Luke holding drone mustering schools across the country, selling drones, and developing online aerial stockmanship training and a livestock herding optimisation algorithm called ‘LHOA’, which one day might conduct autonomous musters.

Luke’s passion for drone mustering was recently featured on ABC’s Landline program.