Understanding crop variability can be as easy as UAV
Author: Michael Thomson | Date: 30 Oct 2014
Something is in the air at Ben Boughton’s family farm and it has made spotting weeds and understanding crop variability plane and easy.
Nuffield Scholar Ben Boughton is using his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to deliver high-resolution images, providing him with valuable crop information throughout the season.
“With my UAV, I can use an infrared sensor to collect biomass data and then alter my variable rate fertiliser application, improving my productivity by putting more fertiliser down where I need it and less where I don’t,” Mr Boughton said.
And crop scouting is much easier with his UAV, helping him provide vital information to his agronomist when inspecting his property.
“An agronomist might inspect 20 per cent of your farm, whereas if you have a high-resolution map you can highlight problem areas with your agronomist and reduce the possibility of missing something.
“When we’re chasing glyphosate-resistant weeds, we can fly our plane over the crops and get a high resolution image and see where the weeds are that haven’t been killed by our sprays.
“The image quality is good enough that you can identify individual weeds, which adds a lot of value to us.”
Mr Boughton said using UAV technology was still in its early stages in agriculture, particularly integrating the data into existing precision systems, but he sees enormous potential in the sector with more farmers taking up the relatively inexpensive technology.
Through his Nuffield Scholarship, which is sponsored by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), Mr Boughton recently travelled to Africa, Eastern Europe, the United States and Canada to learn more about UAV adoption in agriculture.
“Each country you look at has a different legislative landscape around operating UAVs, but in Australia we are well set up to operate UAVs commercially,” he said.
“I think the greatest value is in the delivery of high-resolution images of our paddocks. We can get one continuous still image by programming the plane to fly on a course over an entire paddock, and when the plane lands I can collect the data and merge the images.
“Because each photo is taken at a slightly different angle, combing the images into to one large mosaic can be a complex process. That is probably one of the challenges we face collecting UAV data.”
As well as tracking weed populations and identifying nutrient deficiencies, Mr Boughton said he can use the data his UAV collects to update his variable rate maps.
“Because the imagery is spatially referenced, the data can be loaded into our Geographical Information Science packages which are often used to create our variable rate maps.
“When we load the data in we can see where the crops aren’t performing, allowing us to change our fertiliser rates based on what the map is saying.”
Mr Boughton and his family operate Gilroy farms, which is a 2000-hectare dryland cropping operation north of Moree.
Averaging 600mm of rainfall each year, the Boughtons grow wheat, barley, chickpeas, and sorghum in rotation. Their soils range from Brigalow/Belah to red clay and a variety of harder clays common to the region.
From heatwaves and frosts to long dry spells, Mr Boughton said climate variability was his biggest challenge.
“Another challenge we’d like to set ourselves is to increase productivity. We want to improve our input and output ratio to make sure we are getting better every year.
“We try to seek out technologies that help us with our conditions. In terms of climate, it’s about improving our water use efficiency (WUE) and adopting technologies that are pretty typical for our area.
“With a little bit of strategic cultivation, we are almost zero till now. We have just moved to a 3-metre controlled traffic farming system and we are using disc seeders for fertilising and sowing,” Mr Boughton said.
When it comes to using UAVs, Mr Boughton said there was still plenty of room for growth and adoption in Australia.
“As more people start adopting the technology, the ideas and uses for UAVs will grow,” he said.
“The more I research UAVs, the more questions I have, but I am seeing greater potential the more I look into them.”
Michael Thomson, Senior Consultant, Cox Inall Communications
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