MINGENEW farmer Darrin Lee is planning to become the first broadacre farmer in Australia to adopt so-called drone technology for his cropping program.
More accurately described as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Mr Lee will use 2013 as a scoping and planning year to set up a new crop management system - involving UAV technology and a new computer software program - he describes as the next quantum step in precision agriculture.
Using UAVs, farmers will initially have a tool to employ to reveal real-time nutrient status of crops, weed and insect populations in paddocks, germination status and sub-soil moisture availability.
All the information will be GPS referenced which means, for example, telematics can be employed to transfer data from a UAV, flying as low as five metres (17ft), to a controller in a tractor or SP sprayer, so an operator effectively has a spot-sprayer at his disposal, with two centimetre accuracy.
Future models, already on the drawing board, will carry chemical tanks for GPS-controlled spraying or a range of cameras and computer controllers for improved quality mapping or spectral subsoil imagery, alleviating the need for a ground sled to collect information.
Mr Lee already is well along the track in setting up his 6500 hectare property - on which he crops 4200ha while running 5000 sheep - having put his hand up as a guinea pig in June last year to employ UAV technology.
"I'm collecting and collating farm data back to 1998," he said.
"Along with ground-truthing data, it will be used in a new software program which will interface with the UAV data we collect.
"The new program will provide me with a range of historical, real-time and pre-emptive information on which I can make more accurate and cost-effective management decisions.
"The UAV's potential uses on my farm are mind-blowing and it is self-evident that having a tool that can fly over your property to gather precise information takes my time management to a new level.
"That was probably the biggest incentive to get involved because it has freed up my time to be more analytical with the almost seamless and timely information at my fingertips."
As an executive committee member of the Mingenew-Irwin Group, Mr Lee already has planned a series of trials this year over a range of soil types.
"Initially we'll use the UAV to fly over the different runs we establish to collect biomass and weed competitiveness data," he said.
"I would imagine that once we get the hang of using a UAV we'll come up with a lot more ideas on how it can be used for other trials, maybe involving different nutrient inputs or different seeding rates.
"This is brand new so I expect we'll just keep evolving with this technology."
According to Mr Lee, farmers know keeping records is a fundamental key to good farm management.
"Whether it's cropping or livestock, you can't keep everything in your head," he said.
"I can't remember everything as accurately as a computer software program with the correct data input."
The new software program is called Crop Manager, designed by Perth-based Data into Profit director Richard Riddle.
"Basically Crop Manager formats information," Mr Lee said.
"It's a program that can capture so many variables and then be pre-emptive," he said.
"For example, it can relate real-time conditions to similar historical periods on the farm, alerting you to different choices for establishing a crop.
"So basically you've got all the information you need in a seamless format and all that's needed is water.
"I also can see this program having enormous potential as a recording system that can format relevant data needed by banks, insurers, agronomists, grain traders, property buyers as well as farmers."
The UAV to be used by Mr Lee will be a Quad Copter owned by Geraldton agronomist Warren Abrams, who has established New Era Consulting with a division called New Era Ag Tech which deals specifically with the UAVs.
The UAVs are Australian-made, sourced from a Brisbane manufacturer and initially to be operated by New Era Ag Tech.
"You need to pass a full and expensive pilot accreditation course to operate a UAV and you need approval to fly it from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)," Mr Abrams said.
"I believe we're the only CASA-approved company in WA.
"We operate the UAV at take-off and landing but while it's in the air, it flies by itself within GPS-referenced boundaries while providing us with a live camera feed.
"It also has the ability to hover, if for example, a farmer wants more detailed data or a closer look at a section of the paddock.
"Generally the UAV will fly 50 metres above the ground and cover 1000 hectares in an hour which costs the farmers about $1/ha.
"From an agronomy point of view, the UAV technology works even better with the Crop Manager program, with all the data collected transferred to a platform within the program where it can be accessed by the farmer or agronomist.
"It's obvious the attention to detail that this data provides will impact on input costs.
"When you look at management strategies involving systems like EM38, an agronomist and farmer can identify a range of options to enhance cost efficiencies while improving crop or pasture production."
Mr Abrams already is involved with Geraldton-based agronomists Agrarian Management, which has pioneered EM38 in the Mid West in association with the Department of Agriculture and Food.
GRDC and CSIRO-funded projects, involving farmers and managed by Agrarian and the department, already have produced promising trial work, involving EM38 and radiometric soil scanning, in conjunction with an appropriate soil testing regime and Yield Prophet software.
The cover-all description is now known as Convert PA (Convergences in Precision Agriculture), to enable farmers to plot and manage various characteristics in individual paddocks.
It's a word to describe the convergence of EM38 (electro-magnetics), gamma radiometrics, Yield Prophet, variable rate machinery capabilities and associated proprietary software.
Used in conjunction with ground-truthing, it is an effective method of identifying the variation in soil chemical and physical properties that influence plant productivity.
These properties can be mapped and with appropriate testing, can identify production constraints or risk factors.
Mr Abrams also is involved with the department on planning projects and with the University of WA on radish resistance.
"If you ask can a UAV do a certain task, the answer will probably be yes it can," he said.
p More information: Warren Abrams 0404 494 905.