Researchers aim to develop drone nutrient scans

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 10:15 03/12/2013
MIKE SCOTT/Fairfax Media

''Transforming Hill Country Farming'' is a programme aiming to develop precision fertiliser application for New Zealand farmers.

Massey University GIS and remote sensing support officer Matthew Irwin flies an aerial drone being used in the field research at Limestone Downs Station to develop precision fertiliser applications for hill country. 
MIKE SCOTT/Fairfax NZ
LITTLE HELPER: Massey University GIS and remote sensing support officer Matthew Irwin flies an aerial drone being used in the field research at Limestone Downs Station to develop precision fertiliser applications for hill country. 

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A seven-year project that aimed to develop precision fertiliser applications for hill country has begun on a remote station in Western Waikato.

Massey University professor in precision agriculture Ian Yule, along with 15 research staff, will use drones and light aircraft to scan the hill country at Limestone Downs Station near Port Waikato this week.

The project is being done in partnership between fertiliser co-operative Ravensdown and the Government and was funded by the Primary Growth Partnership. The project's research partners are Massey University's Precision Agriculture Group and AgResearch.

Yule's team would be taking samples and carrying out sensor calibration to help identify what the nutrient requirements are on different parts of the station and what the likely response to fertiliser would be.

"Farmers would get much more accurate advice about how much and when the products are to be put on in an attempt to improve productivity," he said.

These sensors will be attached to drones and light aircraft that will fly over the station.

Once that information is gathered, it had to be downloaded and analysed.

"We're still very much in the experimental research phase and we're really trying to identify instruments that will give us the kind of answers that we are looking for," Yule said.

Precision fertiliser use was much more accurate than blanket applications.

"Because we can do that, we can deliver either different amounts or different types of fertiliser at different parts of the farm."

Once the system is commercialised, Yule predicted a hill country farmer would have the data for different fertiliser applications within days.

Limestone Downs was the first farm in the country where the drones had been used for the project.

Massey University has a long association with the property, having used it as a research site in the past.

Ravensdown chief information officer Mark McAtamney said aircraft would be used during the research, but drones could be the way forward.

"We would have near-infrared cameras on the drones, and the operator or the farmer can take the scan, and Ravensdown would process the scanning and come up with the fertiliser equation."

Eventually, it was expected that only scanning would be required to provide a picture of nutrient levels on hill country.

"During the research, they will soil test these slopes and will do an analysis. We will see if we can find some correlations in the scan with the soil nutrient levels, and therefore be able to use the scanning of the hillside as a replacement [for] physical soil testing.

"Then we will use variable rate technology in aircraft to apply fertiliser."

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- Waikato Times

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