Rise of the Drones as latest model releases reduce costs

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We talk to a veteran drone operator contractor that has been there from the very start to see where the latest technology is heading

Highly proficient drone operators are moving toward the recent release DJI T30 as the current market leader for drone spraying

If you want to know something about a start-up industry, go to the operator that has lived and breathed the pitfalls and triumphs from the very beginning.

We did just that when we wanted to review the progress from the time drones have been introduced to farming, up until the present day.

Scott Fisher from Skytech Solutions started in what was a fledging industry just four years ago. Today Scott runs a successful drone spraying contracting and sales business and helps train farmers on ways to use a drone.

At the start of his new career Scott had 20 years experience in the manufacturing and automation industries with a background in Agronomy. Although he never followed the agronomy career, he says it does give him a unique perspective in the fundamentals of pesticide application for on-farm applications.

At the time, we had these highly technical drones that promised to change the way we farmed, but there was little knowledge about the way they operated and what benefit they would be to on-farm operations.

Initial launch was tied down with too much red tape for many farmers to consider taking on all the requirements that the aviation authority CASA expected from a drone operator at the time.

As an example of the ground a drone can handle Scott cites his own situation with two T30 drones he can apply insecticide or fungicide at a rate of 100ha a day and also has a contract to sow 300ha of ryegrass

But since the early days of Scott Fisher entering the drone market, legislation has changed to allow farmers to simply register their drone with CASA, and as long as they use it over their own landholding, all that is required is a drone licence and they have a smart new addition to their machinery fleet.

Scott has seen all the drone models come and go but was fortunate enough to settle on the DJI product range from the very start.

Scott is currently running a spray model from the DJI line, a T30, and said this about his reasons for that selection.

“I chose the DJI T30 based on its 30-litre carrying capacity and the battery power it offered to give me a full day’s work. Prior to that we ran a T16 and T20 model that only carried 16- and 20-litres of product, we replaced two units with one, cutting back operator time considerably,” Scott said.

“Drone technology has improved to the stage where we used to have 10 or eleven batteries and two chargers to run our T16 and T20 models, but with the T30 we only need three batteries for an efficient day’s work.

“This means we can keep a T30 in the air all day long because their batteries re-charge very quickly, Scott added.

Even farmers running substantial ground spraying rigs are seeing the benefit of being able to spray in any conditions with a drone and especially when the ground rig would get bogged down

At present, outside ground spraying season, Scott still has a full contract book and is very busy with a lot of fungicide and insecticide work spraying Tee tree.

The DJI T30 is the ideal drone for tree canopy application due to its onboard technology and with its 30-litre product tank capacity.

Scott added, “Once we get the Tee tree spraying completed, we have a full book of ground spraying work that includes ryegrass and fertiliser spreading.

“We have 500ha to spray of insecticide and fungicide and following that we have another 300ha of ryegrass to sow, with both jobs expected to be completed within a three-week time frame.

“To give an example of the workload we can handle, with two T30 drones operational we can potentially clear-up the 500ha at a rate of 100ha a day,” Scott confirmed.

Scott has found he can run the drones accurately from one to 1.5km away from the base station. With an air hover time from 12 to 15 minutes and this allows a full tank spray run and still have enough battery power to get the drone back to base.

Ideally Scott says its best to be positioned up to 500 metres from the job application and that way he can achieve coverage across 6ha an hour.

In this setting Scott says he has been able to easily achieve coverage across 50ha in one day, with just one T30 drone.

The DJI T30 is the ideal drone for tree canopy application due to its onboard technology and with its 30-litre product tank capacity

Farmer friendly operation

When Scott was asked how he saw farmers handling their own on-farm drones he had this to say, “It’s pretty simple, the majority of the operation covering weed spraying or pasture seeding will run automatically once the mapping has been completed.

“We can offer advice and instruct farmers that purchase a drone for the first time, and our personal feedback is that it’s very straight forward for a farmer to learn how to operate a drone.

“The DJI T30 has shown a marked improvement for drones, its due to the amount of ground it can cover that makes it far more efficient than any other drone currently on the market.

“And with the spray width set the same as our previous T16 model at 5 metres, when you compare spray ratios the T16 was calculated at 40-litres/ha flow rate and would and run at 14kph, while the T20 had a slightly higher flow rate and would run at 16 to 18kph.

“They are both eclipsed by the T30’s 40-litres/ha flow rate and 24kph working speed.

Scott also said his contracting customers were taking notice, “They actually prefer the T30 as it produces more downforce with the result of better coverage and spray penetration into the crop.

“While most of our customer still have ground spraying rigs, they are seeing the benefit of being able to spray in any conditions, especially when the ground rig would get bogged down.

“Recently I helped set-up a drone on a large farming operation in Tamworth NSW, where they already have heaps of equipment, but they could see how a drone would allow them to access areas that they just couldn’t get to on the ground because of wet conditions.

“If a farmer wants to spread some rye grass seed and conditions prevent a tractor from starting for another month, a drone is obviously the answer, it will work in any weather conditions,” Scott added.

Scott says farmers are becoming very aware of what a drone can offer as far as avoiding downtime, and from the time he started four years ago the growth has been exponential.

During the past four years Scott has been operating, eight new DJI models have been released, and the technology gains have been immense.

Sales of drones have increased more than 20% a year as farmers notice the technology they carry is upgraded at a rapid rate and can benefit their on-farm operation.

For instance, four years ago when spray drones became available, Scott started out with a 10-litre capacity MG1S model and can barely believe the transitional benefits that current drones now offer.

With the DJI T30 the updated remote controller and monitor keep the operation under close scrutiny at all times with stable image transmission from up to 5km away

What certificates will you need

Firstly, your drone needs to be registered with CASA. And at a minimum a farmer will need a landowner drone licence as the drone operation falls under the “land holder exemption rule”. Of course, this can vary by state.

For a farmer familiar with machinery Scott says, “Getting the licence is easy, most of it is online stuff and just theory and the do’s and don’ts of operation.

“From there it’s a matter of a simple flight test that will be run by whichever drone licence company you decide to use, and once you pass you are allowed to fly anywhere over your own land. This certificate is called a RePL,” Scott added.

You could take the next step and study for a ReOc (remote operators certificate) and aerial application licence from your local state or territory EPA authority to become a commercial drone operator. The RePL is perpetual and does not require renewal.

When it comes to choosing a drone brand to purchase, is when the main confusion will start.

Scott said he chose DJI after looking at all the other brands available. “I did look at a major market competitor to DJI and found two things in particular I didn’t like about them.

“First point was they used a CDA sprayer that I believed simply wasn’t as effective as the DJI set-up that runs air inducted nozzles with a 110-deg flat fan, so you already have your pressure heading in the right direction, with your spray forced to the ground, and this simply works the best.

“The CDA spray system used on other models generates a stream that is spread out horizontally and then relies on the rotor downforce to apply the spray.

“In addition, the other brand only runs on four motors and if it loses just one motor it will crash, whereas the T30 has six motors.

“We actually developed a motor fault recently and it flashed up on our controller, we were able to guide the drone home for some quick maintenance.

“With any technology of course, there is the chance a fault could develop, and with the DJI models you do get a 12-month warranty.

“Another point to consider when selecting a drone, is the size of generator you will need to recharge batteries in the paddock.

“Batteries on the DJI T30 utilise a 7200 watts charger, so you will need a 10 to 20kVA generator as part of your kit to keep your bat­teries at full charge, ready for the next run.

Expect sales of drones to increased more than 20% a year as farmers take notice of their role on-farm with technology upgrading at a rapid rate

What you need now and what to expect

Because Scott was there from the very start, and witnessed the rapid progress of drones, it’s easy for him to now predict the future, “Drones will become autonomous, down the track you will have a base set-up on the farm, and from the farm office you will give instructions on what the drone will do next.

“And eventually in the autonomous process the drone will recharge itself at the home base as required, ready for the next task, and all of this I predict will happen within the next 5 years.

“As a reference to how this will eventuate, DJI has just released the M30 model that comes with an automatic charging dock that includes a wireless charger. And as contractors, we are also currently working with ways for the drones to mix their own product for the task at hand.

“An ideal companion for a farmer about to add a T30 to their arsenal would be an observation drone such as the Phantom 4 RTK mapping drone.

“The Phantom 4 RTK has the ability to map out any crop or pasture paddock and relay that information to a laptop running DJI Terra. From Terra you can identify where you want the drone to operate by placing boundary points on the paddocks that need attention.

“Then this is uploaded to the T30 for action, and in addition the observation drone is ideal for checking up on livestock and water reserves around the farm,” Scott added.

On the DJI T30 the product load is evenly spread to ensure balanced operation at all times

Scott Fisher believes he has picked a winning industry, one where drone technology will reach a stage that will ensure every farm operation, regardless of size will eventually want to own and operate their own drone.

Even if it’s a small model to check to see if a gate is open or closed or livestock is down somewhere on the farm. Drone manufacturers have the resources to cater for every operation that farmers may need from a drone.

“We often get neighbouring farmers coming along while we are at work and They are sometimes spellbound and say things like, this is what we need, as they can see that drones are very easy to operate, in our hands at least,” Scott adds.

“We have been resellers of drones now for the past two years, and get sales calls from all over the country, buying from us also comes with the bonus of being taught how to use the drone.

“We expect the sales we made last year, to be doubled in 2022 with the release of models such as the T30 and the spray and spreading package that comes with it,” Scott anticipates.

For anyone wanting to become a drone contractor, Scott offers this advice, “Make contact with your local rural supply store and have a chat with the head agronomist there and see if there is a need in the region to handle their drone work,” Scott concluded.

Scott Fisher has vast experience with spray and observation drones through his own contracting business and has also impressed DJI as he was appointed as a reseller two years ago, trading as Skytech Solutions based in Lismore NSW.

Scott is available for a chat about a drone that would suit your own operation, make an initial contact call on tel: 0458 486 856, email: enquiries@skytechsolutions.com.au or see more on the Skytech Solutions website at: https://www.skytechsolutions.com.au/