Drone demonstration day gives producers food for thought

Drone consultant Tony Gilbert believes the technology is worth the investment. (ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Horticulture group, Growcom, has hosted a drone demonstration to introduce south-east Queensland producers to the technology. Source: ABC Rural

Strawberry, stone fruit and avocado growers joined a group interested to learn how a near infrared agricultural drone could assist with early detection of crop stress and disease.

Tony Gilbert owns Queensland Drones and launched a fixed-wing Ag Eagle drone, equipped with near infrared scanners, above a strawberry field at Oaklands Farm in Beerwah.

“When the sun shines down on plants they absorb light, but they don’t absorb all the light, they only absorb the red light and blue light and that’s why when we look at these oats, they’re green, because they’re reflecting green light back at us,” Mr Gilbert said.

“But they’re also reflecting near infrared light that we can’t see and that near infrared light is about five or six times stronger than the green light that’s being reflected back.

“We shoot images in the near infrared spectrum, we can see very, very small differences in the plant, long before you’d ever see them with your eye.”

Guided by a computer, the fixed-wing drone swept back and forth over the fields, gathering data.

Mr Gilbert had photographic examples to demonstrate how it had identified poor growth, lack of nutrition, faulty irrigation, and pest and weed invasions in agricultural crops.

“That’s a paddock of iceberg lettuces and what you see is that just along here there’s a red strip. This should all be green, but you’ve got some yellowing here, that indicates a bit of stress, you’ve got a red strip down here which indicates that the plant is in serious difficulty in that section,” he said.

“We can’t say what’s causing that, what we can say is you need to go in there and have a look, because there’s something wrong there that shouldn’t be.

“In this scan, we actually mapped the Gatton horticulture expo site and what you’re seeing here is root rot.”

Queensland’s peak body for fruit and vegetables, Growcom, staged the day with the help of Queensland Government funding.

“We’ve been rolling out Hort 360, which is the best management practice program for horticulture,” Growcom’s Anna Geddes said.

“We have two project officers in south-east Queensland offering free on-farm risk assessments.

“We’ve discovered knowledge gaps within the industry and that’s why we’re running training days like this on drones.

“It’s about incorporating technology into everyday farming and production.”

John Allen stands in a strawberry field.

Oaklands Farm director John Allen is interested in the practical applications of drone technology. (ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Oaklands Farm director, John Allen, was interested in the early detection of potential infestations of spider mites and fungus in his fields.

“We grow strawberries and that’s where the main application will be as I see it at the moment. We also grow ginger,” he said.

“Pretty much every season you’ve always got a hurdle somewhere, but recent rain has created fungal issues with powdery mildews.

“It can do a lot of damage, so to find that five days earlier than what we can physically see it and then treat it could save thousands of dollars.”

Shane Francis travelled from Kumbia near Kingaroy where he grows 20,000 stone fruit and 3,000 avocado trees.

“Anything that can help along those sort of lines and pick up a problem sooner rather than later is why we’re here,” Mr Francis said.

The demonstration drone was worth $25,000.

“It’s a hell of a lot of money,” Mr Francis said.

“But we’ve got three or four growers at home, maybe our local horticultural guys can pick up something cheaper than that, as long as it can do the job that might be great.”

Glasshouse Christian College students joined the producers at the drone demonstration day.


Glasshouse Christian College students join the producers at the drone demonstration day. (ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Mr Gilbert said drones paid for themselves in reduced crop losses and input costs.

“Farmers do invest in technology, the GPS-controlled tractors that they use to create straight lines in their crops cost a lot more than that,” he said.

“It’s an add-on investment and they don’t have to actually buy the complete system, they can subscribe to an on-farm service where you pay for surveys at a per hectare rate.”

“Saving one avocado bush or one macadamia tree, can be worth thousands of dollars in the life of the plant.

“But even in a lower value crop, if we were to pick up spider mites in a strawberry field, the farmer’s only choice from a visual scan is to put an insecticide over the whole crop.

“We can show the farmer the exact areas of the crop that need the insecticide and he may only use 50–30 per cent of the amount he would have used in spraying the whole crop to get rid of that pest.”

Mr Gilbert said the same applied for nitrogen.

“If a farmer’s going to put nitrogen on his crop normally speaking he would apply the same rate of nitrogen across the entire crop but we can actually provide data so that the nitrogen is only being applied where its needed,” he said.

“That can result in quite big savings.

“We’re talking about $5 a hectare to survey the crop, while the farmer could be saving $30 to $40 a hectare just on nitrogen.”

Mr Gilbert said Australian use of drone technology in agriculture was in its infancy and producers had a lot to learn from the USA, Europe and Asia.