Checking stock, troughs and pasture from the comfort of the couch has been but a dream for farmers, but the use of drones could make that a reality.
About 20 farmers attended a drone display at a Beef and Lamb event on innovative farm technology in Wellsford last month.
Drone operator Craig Powell from Major Look Productions said drones were starting to be used by farmers around the country for a variety of tasks.
“Drones can cover ground quickly over difficult terrain while giving the operator a highly detailed image, making it a versatile tool on the farm,” Mr Powell said.
“People are already using them for spring lambing so they can keep an eye on stock without disturbing them.
Farmers are also using them to check trough levels and fences and for getting aerial photos of paddocks.”
A Central Otago farmer has been using a drone for nearly two years to herd sheep on his 12,000ha farm and has found them to be vital for checking on stock in snow.
Agribusiness consultants AbacusBio recently finished a two years project working with Beef and Lamb NZ and Raglan drone manufacturer, Aeronavics, to investigate the potential for using drones in farming.
The team worked with Southland farmer Neil Gardyne, who made headlines in 2013 for using a drone to check on stock 466ha sheep farm. He found using the drone saved him about an hour and a half on a quad bike each day.
The research included using a drone to make automated stock counts.
AbacusBio consultant Bram Visser said the project was a huge success and a major timesaver, but uptake of the technology had been surprisingly slow.
“We have low population density and hilly country – it’s perfect for drones,” Mr Visser said. “We are now trying to figure out what we can do to get more farmers on board.
“If people are keen to try this out we are very interested to help them and learn from their experience.”
Aeronavics sales manager Simon Thomson says agriculture is expected to be one of the biggest applications for drones.
“I think in five years it will be commonplace to see multiple craft out doing things autonomously on farms,” Mr Thomson says.
Research is also underway using multi-spectrum scanner on drones, which can give detailed information on plant health.
“If you scan a paddock from above it can find areas which are under stress or suffering from disease up to two weeks before it is visible to the eye.”
A major limitation of the technology are the Civil Aviation Authority rules which require drones to be within site of the operator.
“A tweak in the legislation for farmers would be useful. Potentially a drone can fly a 15km path autonomously and come back, so it can go and collect lots of useful information, but currently it can only be used within a few hundred metres of the operator.”
However, as more drones are used, the risk of them being misused increases. At the Beef and Lamb meeting Transpower landowner relations advisor Noel O’Dwyer said drones had caused power outages twice in the past two months by striking power lines. Last month a real estate agent in Whangarei clipped a distribution line, cutting power to 200 houses, while in the South Island a drone struck a pylon, causing $10,000 worth of damage.
“We are looking at using them ourselves,” Mr O’Dwyer said. “Currently we hire helicopters to inspect lines, which is a safety risk and costly. It’s just a matter of being able to do it safely. There’s huge potential.”