Drones Help Precision Agriculture Take off in Australia

Climate change has made life hard for Australian farmers.

From record-setting bushfires to droughts, farmers have lost up to 20% of their profits over the past 20 years due to environmental factors.

With the pandemic-driven disruptions to the global economy, you might think that 2020 has been yet another year of hard hits for Aussie farmers.

Yet, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) forecasted that the winter crop yield will be 44.5 million tonns in 2020–21, which is 11 percent above the average annual level of the past ten years.

What's Going On Here? More Rain in 2020?

It’s true that 2020 hasn’t been quite as brutal as 2019, the hottest and driest year on record for Australia.

But rainfall across Australia was 43% below average in July, so that doesn’t seem to be the biggest thing that has changed. A more likely cause for this accomplishment is that Australia’s farmers improved with precision agriculture over the past few years.

And, as you might guess, drones played a key role in making that possible. 

Drones Improving Agriculture? How So?

The goal of precision agriculture is to optimize returns on inputs while preserving resources like water and chemicals.

To do that, farmers must be able to observe, measure, and respond to tiny variations of outcomes in their crops. For example, Queensland farmers use drones to map their fields of macadamia trees, identify unhealthy ones, and spray the trees at highest risk with fungicide and fertilizer to give them a boost.

According to the drone-manufacturing company XAG, these methods helped Australian farmers reduce water use by up to 90% and chemical use by up to 30%. That’s compared to the status-quo method of using tractor-mounted spray cannons as a spray tool for pest and disease management in macadamia orchards.

XAG drones are also being used to map hard-to-reach locations and drop seeds to restore empty fields.

What Types of Drones are Being Used For Precision Agriculture?

It really depends on the use case.

As a general rule of thumb, fixed-wing UAVs are the best when you want to cover a lot of ground. Alternatively, multirotors are better-suited to precision imaging of small or constrained areas and 3-D scanning of fields and objects, due to their maneuverability. 

When it comes to size, large drones tend to be more costly than small drones, but they’re also more weather-proof and better suited for large areas of coverage. Meanwhile, smaller drones tend to be better suited for activities requiring greater precision; as we’ve noted in another article,

Additionally, Japanese farmers have developed insect-sized drones to pollinate plants as bees do. 

In Australia, farmers and drone-as-a-service (DaaS) companies seem to use a variety of platform sizes and types. For example, Oztech Drones, a Queensland-based DaaS company, uses a 40-kg quadcopter for seeding, and smaller, [fixed-wing] surveying drones for mapping. 

Is Satellite Imagery Likely to Replace Drone Imagery Any Time Soon?

While many farmers use both types, satellite imagery and drone imagery have their pros and cons.

Because drones take a lot of time to survey a large plot of land, satellite companies make compelling offerings for frequent updates on macro-trends.

For instance, Planet Labs, a firm in San Francisco, keeps a fleet of about 30 mini-satellites (measuring a few centimeters across) in orbit. This allows it to provide fresh data to farmers at a relatively affordable rate, though the imagery has a resolution per pixel of only 3.5 meters (about ten feet).

Fitted with the right sensors, drones offer much better resolution, but it’s not usually cost-effective for farmers to gather drone data as frequently as they would like.

What is the Future of Precision Agriculture in Australia?

Right now, it seems like many farmers rely on DaaS companies to perform key precision agriculture functions, but that might change.

Most of Australia’s DaaS companies today are small businesses.

It’s unlikely that they’re working at a large enough scale to offer low prices for their services while still making a profit.

DaaS is appealing to farmers who are in the “experimental” phase of using drone technology, and aren’t ready to invest in an expensive platform and sensors. However, water scarcity might make precision farming more than just a competitive advantage … instead, it may become an absolute necessity.

In that case, it seems like farmers might decide to develop in-house drone solutions

However, if DaaS providers manage to scale up their offerings enough to ensure good quality and prices, it might make more sense for farmers to just just pay someone to provide drones solutions for them.

It’s worth noting that drones are just part of the picture. True, forward-thinking farmers are integrating IoT sensors, satellite data, and other data sources, into their strategies, as each offers unique pros and cons.

The quality and cost of data from these other sources will likely directly impact the role that drones play in data-gathering activities in the future. However, even if IoT sensors and satellites could provide all of the necessary data, farmers would still need a cost-effective method of administering water, insecticide, and fungicide to the plants in need.

And, drones seem particularly well-suited to do just that. 

Picture of Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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