Caning the drones

We hear plenty about satellite and drone technology and the possibilities for it in the farming space, but now trials in North Queensland are taking things even further. Source: ABC Rural

Experts have been in Mackay testing direct autonomous control of tractors via satellite with the use of drones.

Essentially the drones map the farm on a pre-determined route that the satellite will then use to guide the tractor.

What was more exciting was that the drone communicated directly with a satellite and essentially controlled itself — although there was still someone on the ground with controls to take over.

This drone and the information it collects will aid the creation of an autonomous tractor to be trialled in Mackay in early December. The tractor will be controlled directly by the satellite, with no human intervention whatsoever.

Derrick Thompson from Hitachi has been overseeing the tests.

“Basically we have brought in some drones that will map the farms and be able to map the fields, so this information can be provided to the satellite for when we come back and do the demonstration of the tractor doing the autonomous cane harvesting,” he said.

“The reason to do this is so that high precision 24 hours a day, seven days a week to allow the tractor to basically plant and harvest crops.”

Last year Mr Thompson oversaw the trial of an autonomous tractor working in a rice field in New South Wales, which was successful. However, cane fields could be more challenging.

“One of the things here is to get the vertical [axis perfect] because the cane has a definite height to it and when cut, they want to be sure they have the same level of accuracy both on the x-y axis as well as the vertical axis.”

While the autonomous tractor is the major focus, Farmacist Mackay’s Tony Crowley was very interested in the drone and the technology it was using.

He believed the technology used — along with the satellite control — could be a game changer for sugar cane production, especially in terms of disease and pest management.

“We cannot see this crop for five months of the year as it grows up, you can see from the outside and look in gradually but for specific detail inside the crop, they are ideal.