Developing drones for agriculture at Aeronavics
Aeronavics produces flying robots that carry equipment through the air for a variety of industries. The UAVs, or drones, offer exciting possibilities for the agriculture sector. A drone is an eye in the sky for the owners of big properties, allowing users to streamline farm tasks and offering a wide range of information from the sensors and cameras these machines can now carry.
Aeronavics started in 2010 as Droidworx. Within a week of starting the company the first distribution request was received, and the company has continued to grow ever since. Co-director Linda Bulk says “it’s an exciting technology which offers a lot of possibilities.”
Some commentators put the drone market at $12B and predict that will double over the next 5 years.
Those in this new industry break down their customers into three primary segments –military, commercial and consumer.
Aeronavics is focused on the commercial market – especially agriculture, film and utilities, which includes industries like mining companies, energy suppliers and forestry. Combined they estimate that this is approximately 25% of the market.
The company has had international clients such as NASA, Disney and Dreamworks.
Historically, Aeronavics dealt purely in airframe structures, however now they focus on building everything from the airframe up. They’ve worked with third party manufacturers to produce machines capable of mapping, surveying and inspection, with varying degrees of detail and information. This includes high resolution photography and film, thermal imaging, LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensing, and multispectral cameras.
Currently Aeronavics has a team of 15 including 12 employees and 3 contractors.
Agriculture is one of the key areas of interest for Aeronavics, as “farmers can appreciate the value of the ‘eye in the sky’”. According to the team at Aeronavics, primary industry is predicted to be the largest user of UAVs due to the growing demand for food and the compatibility of drone technology and farming practices.
The use of drones in precision agriculture is growing substantially. Infrared cameras, thermal sensors or multispectral cameras fitted on drones allow farmers to survey land that would be too hard or time consuming to get to on foot. Arable farmers can see where crops are growing well or where there is a disease or insect problem. Different crop treatments and seed types can be surveyed from the air.
Livestock farmers can observe stock and even move them remotely – lambing beats and routine checks can be done from a distance. Dairy farmers are excited at the range of possibilities drones offer, including simple but time consuming tasks like pasture measurement.
A challenge facing those wanting to use drones in the agriculture sector is how to effectively utilize the information that the machines are capable of gathering.
Aeronavics say the possible payload attachments for drones include cinema-quality motion picture cameras, industrial zoom cameras, multispectral and hyperspectral cameras, thermal imaging equipment, spray pods, laser scanners, air sampling equipment and more.
Aeronavics is also keen to sell the safety side of drone use. Using a drone means less time on the quad bike and more opportunities to keep people safe.
Canterbury University is one of many academic institutions looking at the use of UAVs in the primary sector. SCION is sponsoring a Canterbury master’s student project looking at drones to improve the efficiency of forestry operators. Another project is looking at using a drone equipped with a thermal camera to find hotspots in rural fires.
Callaghan Innovation is a government agency that is also in the drone research field. The agency is supporting R & D on drones – one initiative has been on bringing together interested parties in an industry organisation called UAVNZ. Another has been running an economic case study on the benefits of UAV’s in the agriculture sector. Callaghan Innovation is running a competition to encourage innovative use and development of drones in the film industry. One of the aims of the competition is to find an innovative solution that solves the issue of UAV flight in difficult weather conditions.
Internationally, drones are being treated cautiously by the aviation authorities. In 2014 a remotely piloted helicopter came within 7m of an Airbus A320 landing at Heathrow airport. Investigators in the UK found there was a serious risk of a catastrophic accident. In the US drone use is currently restricted to hobbyists. Those using them in business need a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval – or a special exemption.
In NZ the Civil Aviation Authority recently started considering a regulatory framework for the commercial use of drones that allowed “beyond-line-of-sight” flights. People operating drones have to have line of sight with the drone they are operating and have to be operating the craft under 120m and clear of any manned aircraft. You cannot fly within 4km of any aerodrome, or within controlled airspace unless given control authorization.
CAA had already given the University of Canterbury permission for two test zones for long-distance use of drones. The Airways Corporation has also set up Airshare, to look at ways of integrating commercial drones with other aircraft.
As of August 1st 2015, drone users had to secure permission to use drones over public spaces or private property. The CAA said the move was largely based on safety rather than privacy concerns. Under the new rules, operators have to contact the landowner. Those who cannot get consent can still fly a drone if they have an operating certificate from the CAA.
The new rules also include a section covering “higher-risk” operators. In this case certificates are granted on a case by case basis.