Farm drones: fad or future?

Drone vs Cow: are drones in agriculture a fad - or a key part of our farming future, asks UNE's Professor David Lamb.
Drone vs Cow: are drones in agriculture a fad - or a key part of our farming future, asks UNE's Professor David Lamb.
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Recently, I had the privilege of presenting at the ‘Agridrone field day’, on a farm near Gore in New Zealand's picturesque South Island hill country. The expo was hosted on the property of one of NZ's leading sheep farmers.

I presented on three topics: virtual fences, remote cattle tracking and pasture biomass sensing using handheld optical devices. The last topic is almost a reality; the former two are a long way off and so I was presenting under the banner of ‘future opportunities’. And of course, my ‘futuristic presentation’ was given at an event dedicated to using drones on farms.

But aren’t drones on farm a bit ‘out there’, too? Are they just a fad – a plausible excuse for many R&D groups worldwide to stick their noses in the farming trough of opportunity (e.g. for R&D funding). Or are they truly a part of our farming future?

Personally, I think the Kiwis have it right! At the field day, drones for checking gates, troughs, paddock drainage and sheep were demonstrated. In the case of sheep, the farmer was using drones to identify cast ewes, encourage them to stand up if ‘stuck’, and even for counting and lamb runs. Another application was for mustering sheep down from near-inaccessible hill country.

And these demos were backed up by some compelling stats, accumulated over the past year of actual operation.

By their on-farm records, these farmers reckoned that they had reduced their quad-bike commutes by 2,000 kilometres per annum, saving them around $8,000 – and had probably lessened their risk of accidents, given the nature of some of the hill paddocks. They’d reduced their quad-bike lambing runs from seven to two per week and had rescued 40 cast ewes from likely death (a cost saving of about $12,000). And the list went on.

So is this the ‘future’ we should all be talking about here in Oz when it comes to drones – a future in which drones could assist with some of our more time-consuming (and often, menial) day-to-day tasks?

Rather than focusing on some of the other more ambitious applications being touted by researchers, why not prioritise getting these types of tasks operationalised on a much larger scale?