TECHNOLOGIES that have the potential to revolutionise farming practices were showcased at the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture’s Smart Farms tour yesterday.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, equipped with cameras that relay the data back to a computer were demonstrated as the University of Southern Queensland’s Dr Cheryl McCarthy, who explained the practical applications for primary producers.
“The sensor equipment that can be carried on these UAVs can let a producer know where there has been damage in a crop by wild animals or other factors, which otherwise wouldn’t be visible at a ground level,” she said.
The demonstrated fixed-wing UAV weighs 2.2kg and has a flying time of 20 minutes and, while they represent the future of agriculture, V-Tol Aerospace pilot Andrew Reiker said the use of the drones was highly regulated.
“If they are going to be used for some sort of commercial gain, the flier would need a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System certificate to fly it,” he said.
“They are limited to day visual flying only, and cannot go above 400 feet.”
Like many new technologies, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) started with military applications and gradually found their way into civilian life. With support from investors such as Google, a new company called Skycatch has developed a UAV that’s used for remote monitoring and inspecting construction sites, mining operations, and farms. Now Skycatch is getting into the solar array inspection business. It will soon begin testing its technology on PV farms built by industry giants SolarCity and First Solar.
Infrared Signatures Show Defective Panels
Photovoltaic panels emit a certain amount of heat, and it turns out that defective panels give off more heat than functioning panels. The difference in temperature can be easily detected using an infrared thermal imaging camera, as shown in the image below. A quick flyover by a UAV armed with an IR camera can identify malfunctioning panels quickly and inexpensively, allowing operators to replace the panels and keep the solar farm running at peak efficiency. You won’t see these flying over residential rooftop arrays; it’s only cost-effective for utility-scale solar farms.
For centuries, farmers have braved the elements to walk their land to check for problems ranging from wind damage and calving cows to pests and predators.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which some people refer to as drones, may save farmers time and money with bird’s-eye views of farmland, says Bob Schultheis, a natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Webster County.
Schultheis addressed the use of UAVs on the farm during the Greene County Soils and Crops Conference Tuesday at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center.
UAVs suited for farm applications vary widely in cost and size. Entry-level aircraft cost from $500 to $1,500 and can fly 10-20 minutes without recharging batteries. Most weigh less than 5 pounds, have a wingspan of less than 3 feet and travel less than 30 mph. For about $300, farmers can install cameras in drones that can send clear still or video images to a smartphone.
UAVs can provide information to answer questions like “How bad was last night’s hailstorm? Are all of my cows on the north 40? Does my corn need more nitrogen?”
Most UAVs rely on GPS for navigation. Entry-level systems can be guided by a hand-held remote control. More sophisticated vehicles can be programmed to fly designated routes using GPS and geographic information system technology.