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Beyond the Bale : March 2015
ON FARM 29 Ben uses a style of drone called a multicopter which is a small multi-rotor helicopter that can also hover. Other types are available such as winged (plane) drones that might be better in pastoral country because they can fly for a longer period than multicopters, although they can’t hover. “The drones have cameras mounted on them that relay vision back to the operator,” Ben says. “The camera is also able to record video and take still shots, so if I don’t want to view the footage live I can launch the drone on a pre-programmed flightpath, go away and do some other work, and then collect the camera’s SD card when the drone returns, for viewing whenever I like such as during smoko.” The drones are powered by rechargeable batteries. Ben says a middle of the range multicopter can fly for approximately 15-25 minutes depending on the model, and cover a round distance of approximately 10 km. “My drone has a low battery sensor that sends the drone home automatically if it gets low on power. I simply put in a new battery and can send it back to resume its flightpath.” As well as control the direction, height, speed and hovering of the drone, the farmer is able to rotate the direction of the drone’s camera (that relays/records the footage) which adds more flexibility to the available vision. PRACTICALITIES Civil aviation authority rules state drones are approved for operations over unpopulated areas up to 400 feet (120 meters) above ground level. “I generally fly mine at a height of 200 feet which is high enough to avoid any trees,” Ben says. “But I take it lower when I get to a destination where I want to zoom in to view for example individual sheep, a leak in a trough or particular weeds. It also enables me to look in locations that I might not usually be able to see, such as into gorges or across areas of heavy bush and woodland. “The drone navigates using GPS, so it can be used when there is wind, although I find it’s generally best to use drones in no more than 40 km/hr winds. The GPS signal is limited in heavily overcast weather, and it’s best not to use the drone in rain.” Ben says the drones do not have any negative impact on the welfare of the sheep. “The drones don’t naturally scare sheep – at 20 meters there is no problem – the sheep are inquisitive more than anything. In fact, I reckon drones are less invasive than a motorbike, sheepdog or a human, so they’re great for observing lambing ewes.” PRE-PROGRAMMING FLIGHTPATHS Ben emphasizes that a great advantage of drones is their ability to follow pre- programmed flightpaths, which can be used on multiple occasions saving the woolgrower time on operating and programming. “I have regular routes that I get my drone to follow. Once I’ve plotted and saved a route, the drone will follow it whenever I ask it to – I don’t have to re-programme a route every time I want to use the drone. I’m able to amend/refine the pre-programmed instructions in the future if I want to. “As well as programming a flightpath, I can also programme when it should descend (to examine things in detail) and when it should rise again, and also different camera rotations. “It’s possible to manually override the autopilot, so if I notice something on the screen that I want to see in more detail then I can interrupt or cancel the programmed flightpath, and then resume it if I want to. “It’s very easy to pre-programme a flightpath. I’ve created some for my property using software called Mission Planner which can be downloaded free from the internet. I plot the route by simply using Google Maps and clicking the desired route with my mouse.” THE BOTTOM LINE Ben says drones with a camera can cost less than $1000 but can cost significantly more. Ben’s multicopter cost him about $2500. As the technology develops, costs are continually coming down. “As with all technology adoption, woolgrowers have to weigh up the costs and benefits to determine whether it is suitable and cost- effective for their own business,” Ben says. “I can understand some reluctance from some woolgrowers, but if they examine the benefits and dollar figures they might be pleasantly surprised. I think it’s definitely an attractive technology to the younger generation. “When my wife sees me ‘playing with these gadgets’, she jokes that I’m going through a mid-life crisis but, jokes aside, we both realise I wouldn’t be doing it if the drones weren’t helping us to run the business more efficiently and contributing to our bottom line.” MORE INFORMATION Ben Watts E firstname.lastname@example.org M 0428 668 706 A style of drone called a multicopter which is a small multi-rotor helicopter that can hover. The camera, which relays vision back to the operator, is mounted on the drone’s underside. Most drones can be easily pre-programmed to fly on set routes around a property, saving the farmer time and effort in operating the drone. Drones can fly on set routes around a property – such as along water courses or boundaries – which only have to be pre-programmed once (but can also be altered or paused at any time). Fine wool producer Ben Watts from Molong, NSW: “Drones have enabled us to reduce some of the time-consuming and physically demanding jobs on the farm, and ultimately save money.”