How Autonomous Drones Could Soon Take Off on Australian Agricultural Land

How Autonomous Drones Could Soon Take Off on Australian Agricultural Land
A image shows the team from Sphere Drones carrying out trials for autonomous drones in Wagga Wagga, NSW, Aug. 23, 2022. (AAP Image/Supplied by Paris Cockinos)

While mustering livestock with drones isn’t new in Australia, autonomous drones could soon have lift-off if an Australian company has its way.

For the past six months at a Wagga Wagga property in the NSW Riverina region, Sphere Drones has been trialling autonomous drones with a spotter in place, mustering 500 head of beef cattle at a time.

Sphere Drones founder and head Paris Cockinos says the company will be ready by May to launch its “drone in a box” system to fly on its own.

The system is transported on a trailer, which the farmer can then set up and leave in a paddock, and is programmed with a timer and calendar ready for take-off, to check fences, water and even muster.

Cockinos says there is a good deal of pre-planning involved.

“We take the GPS positions of all the fence lines, and we assume that the farmer has an insight as to where their cattle are, and they select the mustering point as to where they want to take them,” Cockinos said.

“The drone then goes and searches for the animals.”

But Cockinos admits there is still some way to go in fine-tuning the technology and further trials are needed.

“It’s all about learning and evolving how the model works,” Cockinos told AAP.

And there’s a further issue to iron out. Currently, autonomous operations are not approved in Australia by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which regulates the industry. The authority said that’s in part because no one has yet applied.

As it stands, drone operations that are automated have a pilot programming a mission and monitoring the flight who can intervene at any time.

But Cockinos says regulations are lagging behind the technology.

“Automating this entire process will be so easy, but we just need the regulation to follow suit,” Cockinos said.

Speaking at a recent agribanking summit in Sydney, Cockinos told delegates that farmers can save an average of 78 days a year by using drones to do “mundane paddock tasks”.

When Cockinos started the business in 2014, drones could only fly for eight minutes at a time. Today it’s closer to an hour. Cockinos predicts that by the end of the decade, drones will be able to stay in the air for five hours.

Research carried out by Deloitte Economics in 2020 shows drone technology could inject $14.5 billion (US$9.7 billion) into the Australian economy over the next 20 years.

Israeli company BeeFree Agro is also hoping to get a slice of that market.

The group is already operating its software in other parts of the world, including Brazil, and hopes to be established in Australia by the end of the year.

“Our system analyses terrain so you choose an area that you want to have scanned, our system basically then maps that area out and creates a flight plan,” company co-founder Noam Azran said.

The livestock producer, who started mustering with drones in 2014, visited Australia in February to talk to cattle station bosses about using his software technology.

“Because of the size and scale of operations in Australia, we are looking at integrating drone platforms that have a much larger range than what we’re using today,” Azran adds.

“Our system is built so that anybody who goes and buys a drone and uses the system can now do a variety of operations on their farm including mustering,” Azran told AAP from his home in Israel.

As the appetite for drone mustering increases among producers, so too is the number of drone and software providers.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) has been looking at the role of drones in agriculture for the past few years.

In 2022, the research and development body funded a series of trials to examine the effectiveness of moving sheep, cattle and goats by drone.

The MLA’s Darryl Heidke said the trials showed how effective drones can be.

“It’s about putting that pressure on and releasing that pressure when they (the livestock) start moving,” Heidke said.

“We found that the drones were very successful at doing that, it’s pretty hard to get a helicopter to take pressure off because they’re quite big and loud.”

The founder of tech start-up SkyKelpie, Luke Chaplain, carried out manual trials over a six-month period across several properties with different terrains.

From the air, Chaplain used the drones to locate up to a thousand head of cattle, sheep and goats in the paddock at a time, bringing them together as a mob and directing them to the processing facility.

Chaplain, who is also a grazier, has been mustering cattle with drones for a few years at his family’s property near Cloncurry, in Queensland.

“I just see it as another form of pressure in the sky, so it’s just like a motorbike or someone on a horse or someone in a helicopter. You put pressure on the animals,” Chaplain said.

“The aerial stockmanship is a craft of its own, and you’ve got helicopter pilots who have that skill but possibly not your general grazier,” Chaplain said.

But Chaplain says over-regulation is holding producers back.

“What we’re fighting for is just to get beyond visual line of sight approvals ... in remote areas where the air risk and ground risk is very low,” Chaplain told AAP.

But having autonomous drones doing specific tasks meant another level of approval processes and permits, “and I don’t know if that’s going to be allowed in the near future.”

The civil aviation authority is working to keep up with the rapidly growing industry.

“We will continue to work with industry to review and update our processes and regulations as necessary to make sure they stay relevant while supporting new technologies and safety,” a spokesperson said.