By James Penn
A farmer's dog might not be his or her only companion for long, with drones set to become the "eye in the sky" on New Zealand farms over the coming years.
Last year's KPMG Agribusiness Agenda even hinted at a transformation in how drones are used to something entirely more sci-fi: "From operating a single lightweight drone to envisaging the use of a swarm of 10 or 20 heavyweight UAV craft."
Fore now, New Zealand farmers are starting to recognise the potential of drones (also referred to as UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles) at a more basic level.
John Bampfylde, CEO of DroneMate, a New Zealand company specialising in the commercial application of drone technology, says there has been a noticeable uptick in interest over the past few months.
"Previously, three or four years ago, you would buy a drone and it generally had reliability issues," explains Bampfylde. "Now they are cheaper, better, and they're just more reliable."
"So with the acceptance that the technology is now there for the drone, people are beginning to think: 'Okay, well how can I actually use this on the farm?'"
The primary use case is surveying, with stock management application growing rapidly.
Where a farmer previously had to travel across the breadth of their farm in a truck or on a quad bike in order to identify crop levels, now they can cover multiple hectares through a drone camera without moving an inch.
Not only does this save time, but it also eliminates the soil disturbance associated with conventional methods of monitoring.
This surveying doesn't just extend to crop levels - farmers can gather intelligence on water levels, fences, gates, animal health, and more.
Specialised cameras are often attached to the drones and mapping applications are used in order to develop sophisticated 2D and 3D maps of the farm.
"We can even mount specialised camera systems that measure photosynthesis to give crop farmers - particularly fruit tree farmers - an early heads up to any signs of disease," says Jonathan Kubiak, sales consultant at Ferntech, a drone retailer.
"They can also use them to herd stock. Sheep, deer and cattle all respond just the same as they would with bikes and dogs," says Kubiak.
"They make finding stock - be they sheep stuck in bush or deer for hunting - a breeze."
While Ferntech have just opened an Auckland store for DJI products - the world's largest drone producer - other New Zealand companies are capitalising on the growing agricultural drone market with more specialist products.
Aeronavics is one of those, producing industrial UAVs with a range of agricultural capabilities. One example is its soon-to-be released precision spray drone, which significantly reduces the cost of pest and weed control.
According to Aeronavics, one of New Zealand's largest agricultural spraying companies is looking into the potential use of this technology to reduce risk to pilots, having lost an employee in an agricultural plane crash recently.
Aeronavics is also envisaging a future in which drones can perform tasks on a more automated basis, without the need for real-time monitoring by the farmer.
"The future looks like this," says Rob Brouwer, director of flight operations.
"A smaller drone that lives in a doghouse sized automated hangar, launches on command to scan the terrain and gathers data from various sensors, and creates a map of nutrient deficient zones, pests and weeds."
"This data is sent to a larger drone in the form of a mission map, which deploys to target those areas with a precise dose to eradicate the pests or fertilise the soil," explains Brouwer.
And the technology has significant upside from an environmental point of view.
"This is a smart and precise way to reduce the volumes of unnecessary chemicals delivered into our nation's soils and waterways, and to maximise efficiencies, by reducing run-off."
DroneMate has built a relationship with Sentera, one of the world's leading specialist sensor manufacturers, which has formed the basis for a number of precision applications.
By pairing the sensors with various DJI models, the company has developed an accessible and affordable way for farmers to take their first steps with the technology.
The drone and its sensors monitor Near Infra Red (NIR) light, the level of which is correlated with the healthiness of plants. This data is then converted into a plant health index and placed onto a map of the area, allowing farmers to visualise which sections are doing well and which need attention.
The next frontier is on the data analysis side, and Bampfylde says that careful analysis gathered by sensor companies over the past 18 months in which agricultural drone uptake has sky-rocketed is starting to show up some interesting new capabilities.
"I think the next stage is we're going to see a lot more, and much smarter, interrogation and analysis from the data that the drones are now gathering," says Bampfylde.
This will eventually mean that more can be measured from the same footage - such as moisture levels, for example - than is currently possible.
However, while there is excitement about this growing industry - reportedly set to crack $1 billion worldwide by 2024, according to a Global Market Insights Report - there are still hurdles to overcome.
First, though drones allow precision monitoring, most farmers don't yet have precision agriculture technology to act on that information - such as the ability to spray extra fertiliser on a particular 4sq m section of land the drone has identified as lacking.
Aeronavics' aforementioned precision spray drone may well provide the solution to this particular hurdle.
Additionally, centralising data from increasingly smart farms is a challenge. Farmers are now collecting data from multiple sources, but it is being fed into vastly different computer programmes that are often unable to speak to each other.
"There's no one common source of information that a farmer has," explains Bampfylde. "It's very difficult for a farmer to bring those sources of information together."
And the common limitation identified by those with a stake in the industry is regulatory in nature. Drone operators must maintain line of sight to their drone at all times.
This means despite the ability to operate multiple kilometres from the controller, farmers are only actually permitted to fly their drone a relatively short distance from where they launch it.
"They can far exceed line of sight, safely with regards to the drone operation but obviously not safely with regards to other air users," says Bampfylde. "So that is a constraint on how these things are used."
Aeronavics' futuristic vision of drones taking off by themselves based on automated systems is a potential solution to this hurdle.
"The actual hurdle for large scale adoption, in our opinion, is because of limitations in the regulatory framework and in particular the requirement to keep the aircraft within visual line of sight," says Linda Bulk, founding director at Aeronavics.
By having the drones take off automatically from multiple launch points, the farmer doesn't have to travel across the farm to launch and operate the drone.
"Take the operator out of the equation, and real savings can be made."
In the future, a farmer could be waking up and checking the state of the farm for that day's work, before even getting out of bed.
Says Bulk: "Farmers are drawn to our vision of them starting their day informed, based on the data a drone would have collected for them prior to their working day."