Drones for Farm Tasks

August 2014

A Southland farmer finds many uses for a drone on his property in a Beef + Lamb NZ project

Southland sheepfarmers Neil and Philippa Gardyne and their son Mark have been trialling drones on their sheepfarm for the past 18 months. Using a drone to monitor stock for cast sheep, to check troughs, and to check thistle patches in remote locations has saved much time and the cost of unnecessary running of farm bikes. On farm safety has also improved. Mark has used the drone for farm mapping, mapping of drains, finding escaped deer, and it is available for search and rescue operations. The Gardynes believe drones have great potential on farms for remotely monitoring and counting stock, and in the future for determining pasture covers accurately. And that the cost and expertise required to operate a drone successfully will soon be no barrier to farms with computer savvy staff. 

Neil was frustrated with the number of cast sheep that he was losing each year from his flock of 4300. Riding his quad bike to distant paddocks and driving through the flock was time consuming and sometimes cast sheep were missed. Then there was the inspection of troughs to ensure they were full and not leaking, the checking of remote blocks of nodding thistles to see if they were at the right stage for control measures, and a number of other routine farm tasks that involved a lot of time and travel. Surely there was an easier, safer way.

One evening Neil and his 13 year old son Mark were watching a documentary about the use of drone aircraft in Afghanistan and Mark commented that a drone would be an ideal tool for the farm. Neil agreed and they set about searching the Internet for suitable machines. It took about a year of research before they purchased a small quadcopter, a helicopter-like machine with four rotors, for about $4000 from Mexico.

When they received it in May last year, they simply took it out of the box and got it going. Mark’s experience with computers and game equipment made it easy for him.

“I took me about two takeoffs and landings to learn to control it and fly it quite well. It is actually easier to work than the little remote-controlled helicopters and is great fun,” he says. “It has a console a bit like an Xbox one but with more switches that do different things, and it talks back to me and tells me how long I’ve been flying and so on.”

Mark bought goggles that allowed him to see what the camera sees in real time and it worked quite well, although on one occasion the information coming back was a bit delayed and the drone crashed. Now he uses an 8” screen to monitor the drone and camera.

“Once I had learnt how to fly it properly, I tried some monitoring of sheep and going out to inspect troughs. We could get just a few metres away from them and I also checked on hoggets at lambing. If you fly at about 100 metres the stock don’t notice,” he says.

“We also tried a little bit of autonomous flying. I just entered the GPS co-ordinates on the laptop where I wanted to go around our farm, got it airborne and pressed “enter” and it flew itself to that location and then came back and landed.”

That feature proved handy for examining several patches of nodding thistles in a remote location with no quad bike access. It meant that without having to make the journey, Neil could tell whether the thistles were ready for control measures or whether he should wait.

In February this year, Neil purchased a second drone from the Raglan company Aeronavics. Although it was more expensive, the company offers technical support and software that are not available for the Mexican machine. Neil says that it is easier to fly because it uses GPS in a more sophisticated way.

“If you let go of the controls it will hover, and if it gets too far away and loses contact with the base station it will automatically fly itself back to where it took off from and land itself,” he says.

“You can specify height and direction to avoid trees and power lines and so on, and you can monitor the camera and instruments on the computer screen or use goggles and manually take it to within a few metres of any object.”

The new drone is showerproof and can handle winds up to 65 kph, and Neil says that Aeronavics is developing a waterproof model.

“We have been using it to look for cast sheep. We can drive through a paddock on the four wheeler and miss some of the cast ewes, but if we use the drone it finds them all, so it is more reliable,” he says.

“Also having a bird’s eye perspective of a mob of 2000 – 3000 sheep can be very handy at this time of year – checking how much grass they have got and whether they can be there for a few more days or whether they should be shifted. We are doing that by eye at present but we hope that science will produce some sort of sensor that will accurately measure dry matter, especially in the critical spring period.”

The drone currently carries a GoPro colour camera and Neil is about to buy a higher resolution camera that he believes will be a game changer. “It will mean that we can send the drone straight up from the house and have it turn around on the one spot and we will be able to see almost all of our property. It can read a large cattle ear tag from 1.7 km away, and at 2.2 km away we can spot individual sheep and certainly see cast sheep from that distance,” says Neil.

“It means the flying distance will be halved so instead of navigating around the hills that are about 3 km away at the farthest point, it will only need to go a kilometre away. We are currently restricted to a maximum height of 400 feet, but if we could go higher we would be able to map whole farms.”

The drone can travel up to 100kph and has a range of about 3 km under manual control but under autonomous flying guided by GPS, its range is restricted only by battery life (currently about 25 minutes) and will soon be extended to about 40 minutes.

Neil is still collecting data on the first 12 months of operation and it is too early to gauge accurately the costs and benefits of using the drone. However, he estimates that their use of four-wheelers has been reduced by about 2000km, roughly 18%. The overhead cost of the quad bikes is $1.15 per km and the labour cost is $2.75 per km. Currently they are operating with 1.1 labour units and he thinks the drone will reduce that to about 0.8 units.

“When we monitor troughs with the drone and find one that is leaking we still have to go there and fix it, but it is the time saving – when you go to a paddock and it takes five minutes by drone or 40 minutes by bike, and that’s the bit that we are still collecting data on,” says Neil.

“There is also the unquantifiable aspect of greater safety. Both Philippa and I have had accidents on the bikes, and reducing the amount of riding we have to do especially in remote and rough areas reduces the risk of accidents.”

The Gardynes are working with AbacusBio Ltd on a 3-year Beef+Lamb NZ demo farm project to test about 100 potential applications. Neil believes they have demonstrated success in detecting cast sheep, checking troughs and other basic time-saving actions. The technology works well, he says, and it is just a matter of adapting it for agricultural tasks, an area in which New Zealand is well ahead.

Neil believes that the older generation of farmers could miss out because it is the youngsters, like Mark, who are computer savvy and love working with new technology. He thinks once the applications are proven and cost/benefit studies are positive, the generation of farmers and farm staff in their 20’s and 30’s will be the early adopters.

Mark is enjoying being able to experiment with the drone and has just set up a small business providing services to local farmers. So far he has done some farm mapping, drain mapping, and deer recovery. “The other day a farmer lost 30 deer beyond his boundary and I was able to help find them. With drain mapping my first client used to spend $1600 getting a small plane and half a day of his time every year to go up and take a photo and to map his drainage accurately. I was able to do that task in a few minutes,” he says.

Neil sees many other opportunities to use drones on hill country. For example, one farmer who spends 19 days each year looking for electric fence faults now intends putting electric fence testers in the fence lines and using the drone to check the sensors and determine where the fault is.

“Another application that I think will take off is the counting of sheep. Corporate farms want to count their stock once a month, so we can send the drone up and take a snapshot of a paddock. Software will crop boundaries and then count the number of white megapixels and give an accurate number of sheep,” says Neil.

“Apparently on 4000 sheep, it would be accurate to within one or two. Landcorp want us to adapt it for their venison count, which they are doing manually at present and can be very inaccurate. We are working with AbacusBio to develop and test this.”

Neil and Mark are avoiding the temptation to buy extra sensors and other gear that they probably won’t need, but at the moment they are considering an infrared camera. “One client has cattle in a bush block and every year he hires a helicopter with an infrared camera to find them at a cost of about $12,000,” says Neil. “You can pick up infrared cameras quite cheaply and he wants us to do that for him, so that’s the next addition to the sensors.”

The sensor/software combination that Neil would give his eye-teeth for is one that would measure the dry matter on pastures without disturbing stock.

“It could be huge for us, because we cannot measure the dry matter on our farm accurately in that critical spring period. If we can do it, that will add $500 profit per hectare to our bottom line, and if all sheep, beef and venison farmers could collect accurate data and use it proactively to make management decisions, it could be worth $5 billion to the country,” he says.

“We are just about at the point now where people could go and buy a drone off-the-shelf and use it. If you’re in my age bracket, you would probably need technical support. If I didn’t have Mark, I would want someone like him to come and set up maybe 10 or 11 missions that I want to do, and I would solely use the autonomous flight mode.”

“But many young people could take one out of the box and learn how to operate it fairly quickly with a good instruction video or lots of phone calls and e-mails, and at the moment we are seeing some early adopters do that. Drones are really fairly simple to use, a bit like a car GPS unit – once you’ve got it sorted you’re right.”