Saturday, 8 February 2014

Southland the land of Drones

After spending a fantastic weekend in Mossburn and Te Anau with friends I started to travel north again, but only as far as Athol. I met up with Steve Wilkins and Heather Wilkins, Steve is a Nuffield scholar in my year. He was just getting to the end of writing his report with the deadline loaming at the end of the week. Steve had arranged for a local farmer and his son, Neil and Mark Gardyne, to call in and show me their drone, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

The Octocopter ready to fly

  Neil is a sheep farmer and is developing ways in  which some of the daily workload and management of his farm can be done remotely and automonously. The octocopter has a flight time of 45 mins, it can either be flown manually or follow a pre planned route, or "mission" as described by Neil's 13 year old son Mark, who is also the pilot. Neil and Mark have identified over 30 different applications for the drone, imagination is the limit, but are focussing on the following three main tasks.

Water Trough management

As sheep are lambed outside and spread over the whole farm there is a twice daily need to check water troughs for leaks. Previously this took someone on a quad bike 2 hrs and involved opening and closing numerous gates. Now with a pre planned mission the octocopter can check all the water troughs on the 460ha property in 20 mins, without leaving the farmyard. The octocopter has a camera fitted to it which can send a live feed to a pair of googles worn by the pilot, and also record the flight footage to be review on the computer later. Any problems are quickly identified and can be solved, with minimal disturbance to the sheep, which is another benefit at lambing time.

Counting Sheep

The octocopter has the ability to photograph a field of sheep. The image is then processed on a computer and the individual sheep are counted, again without disturbing the sheep or having to go to the field. It will be possible to differentiate between ewes and newborn lambs in the future simply by the number of pixels the sheep or lamb covers.

Monitoring grass growth trends

This application has the biggest potential to improve productivity, as if you can see if your grass growth is trending up or down, by looking at the dry matter (DM) available, this makes the decision to move sheep from one field to another more informed. Through the use of image analysis these trends could be observed quicker than by visual inspection of the field, reducing over and under grazing pasture.
Mark preparing to launch the octocopter at a FAR field day
In flight

At the moment there are a few drawbacks with operating the octocopter, in that it is not waterproof this would not be ideal in the UK climate. This should be rectified with a new drone, but will cost 3 times as much as the original. Another major issue is being able to fly over other people’s property due to privacy concerns. Mark is allowed by the NZ aviation authorities to fly autonomously over his own property but not over anyone else's. Both of these issues would be greatly amplified in the UK due to the higher population density and fragmentation of many farming businesses. All that said I can see the use of some form of UAV having a role in UK agriculture, as a remote monitoring resource which could be linked to spatial data and employed in field management.  

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