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DIY drones for farmers: Putting the power of maps into farmers’ hands

Drones have become the latest buzz in agriculture or smart farming, with a growing number of farmers using them to keep an eye on their crops and fields.

Yet, many Australian farmers aren’t taking full advantage of the benefits they offer.

The University of Southern Queensland, in partnership with Land Solution Australia, is helping farmers learn how to use drones to map and monitor their crops more effectively using aerial images and data analytics.

Dr Zahra Gharineiat, a senior lecturer in surveying and researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, said drone mapping could help farmers make informed decisions about crop management.

“Using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to map fields helps remove the guesswork when it comes to assessing crop health, monitoring crop growth rates and even spotting disease or other crop issues,” Dr Gharineiat said.

“They provide timely and accurate data collection, which can help farmers better address and respond to crop stress, manage labour costs, significantly increase yield and document crop losses for insurance purposes.”

While the cost and time-saving benefits of using drones to monitor and manage crops are becoming widely known, Dr Gharineiat said the biggest hurdle for farmers was knowing how to process and analyse the data.

“Most of the farmers I have spoken to say they are keen to use the technology, but lack the knowledge and technical skills to process the images taken by the drone and convert them into maps,” she said.

To help overcome this problem, Dr Gharineiat and Dr Jun Wang, a data scientist at the University of Southern Queensland, helped develop a new cost-effective, easy-to-use data processing platform.

The cloud-based service allows farmers to upload their aerial images and automatically create precise maps of their crops.

“Some farmers pay thousands of dollars to get someone to come out and perform an aerial survey of their property, but imagine the amount of money they would save if they purchased their own drone and were able to do the same job as often as they liked,” Dr Gharineiat said.

On April 22, dozens of Queensland farmers will take part in a free workshop at the Queensland College of Wine in Stanthorpe to learn how to safely operate a drone and use the data processing platform.

“Our key focus is to fill the knowledge gap so farmers can begin to tap into the full potential of drones and harness the opportunities they offer,” Dr Gharineiat said.  

“We will be teaching them how high they need to fly to get accurate results, what sort of accuracy they can expect, how much overlap is needed between the images, what types of sensors they can use and how they can use the data in different applications for different purposes.”

The project is supported by an Australian Government Innovations Connections grant from the Entrepreneurs’ Programme.

Dr Gharineiat said she hoped the project would develop further and lead to more interest and funding so they could provide more workshops around the country.

usq lecturer holding a drone
University of Southern Queensland’s Dr Zahra Gharineiat is helping farmers get the most out of drones.