Jamin Fleming from Australia’s Oztech Drones, who has grown up in a large cattle farm, is among the tech-savvy, keen millennial generation who passionately embrace a fulfilling career in agriculture. He is one of the many young talents who have returned to the farming either through inheritance or working for agriculture business as farmhands, managers and agronomists – or starting their own companies as service providers. Oztech Drones based in Bundaberg, south-east Queensland is one these new service providers.
Australia is bucking the global trend of an ageing farming population, with latest statistics from Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) showing more people are joining the agricultural workforce and the proportion of those under 35 years old is on the rise.
"Australia's agricultural workforce is getting a lot younger now, because I think a lot of young people don't want to be in an office or doing the same thing every day,” Fleming concurred.
But these young workforce are challenged by vast sown areas all across Australia, especially with this year’s winter bumper harvest. ABARES has predicted winter crop yield to be 44.5 million tonnes in 2020–21, which is 11% above the average annual level of the past ten years. The favourable weather conditions such as rain beginning to fall steadily and the soil developing a good moisture profile. This is a boon after three years of intense drought and months of bushfire devastation that badly battered the continent. Amid the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia agricultural sector is one of its few bright spots that have shown strong resilience.
With the large area that needs tending, fledgling entrepreneur Fleming has been urging peers in the industry to deploy drones to provide autonomous spraying solutions for difficult-to-access field areas of horticulture crops such as macadamia, strawberry and potato – while spreading seeds to restore the overgrazed pasture in response to climate change.
“Agriculture has a great range and the technology is getting better every day," said Fleming. “Since Australia's agriculture is a significantly volatile industry plagued by harsh, unpredictable weather conditions, innovations are desperately needed from these new faces to help manage the enormous risks of climate change.”
To deploy his company’s unmanned device farming solutions, Fleming has been working with drone maker XAG Australia to provide aerial treatments for pests, weeds and crop diseases.
Raising sustainable macadamia nuts
The Australian macadamia industry, with a farm-gate output value of AU$267 million in 2019, has been leading the world in its adoption of sustainable farming practices and climate-resilient productivity.
Macadamia trees have the natural ability to optimise water consumption, adapt to dry condition, and absorb substantially higher amount of carbon, suggesting in-built sustainability unmatched by many other crops. According to the Australian Macadamia Society, each year 70% of its macadamia crops, as confectionary and healthy snacks, are exported to over 40 countries, contributing 30% of the global production.
Since July, Fleming has been working with local fruit growers, such as Redrock and Suncoast Gold Macadamias, on a series of trials to apply fungicides and fertilisers on macadamia trees with XAG's agricultural drones.
Tractor-mounted spray cannons are still widely used as the spray tool for pest and disease management in macadamia orchards. However, growers are committed to minimising its carbon output, which means the use of heavy diesel machinery should be further limited.
According to Fleming, this creates an untapped area where drone-based solutions from XAG can reduce 30% chemical use and conserve up to 90% water.
"We first mapped an area of the farm out using the XMission survey drone and found the trees that were lacking in health. Then, we sent the crop protection drone just to spray those specific trees rather than the entire crops as normal spray rigs would do,” said Fleming, explaining how drones facilitate precision agriculture.
With this fully autonomous drone, farmers can even target at individual plants and skip the spacing between trees. "We found the spraying drone can spiral over larger trees with better coverage of the whole canopy. Also, you can pre-program the drone to conduct hover spray over the smaller trees, which is more efficient," he said.
Results from the trial phase also showed that droplets were broken down into tiny particles of different sizes that could reach the lower foliar of the macadamia trees. The big picture here is trying to help macadamia growers prioritise the protection of water, minimise pesticide usage from traditional techniques, and eliminate possible chemical drifts. Given that water shortage has been a persistent issue in Australia, such benefits of drone applications should be seen across the entire agriculture industry which accounts for three quarters of total water use.
Fly over the toughest places
As a fledgling drone entrepreneur, Fleming's business has really taken off to accumulate field experience on a wide variety of crops, including grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Fleming said drones can flex their muscles over complicated terrains, where large manned machinery such as tractors or helicopters find it difficult to handle the operation. He has just contracted to one of the largest sweet potato growers in Australia, managing invasive weeds with XAG drones in all their channels, hard-to-reach areas and around the dams.
"We also help them with controlling weeds around water hydrants in the middle of fields. In one field, there could be 50 hydrants which a tractor used to drive through damaging the crop to get to these hydrants. Now using the XMission drone we can survey the entire field, find the hydrants, and send the spray drone out to only target the hydrant," he said. Thanks to this nimble, flexible technology, any crop damage is eliminated to help farmers close their yield gaps.
With a good drop of rain and mild temperature, many farmers in Australia are very thrilled to have one of their best cropping seasons in lifetime. Yet, a long-unseen wet winter also brings another big problem to disease management on waterlogged areas after rain.
Eyes on the issue, Fleming has also started working with fruit growers on strawberries.
"Some of their fields have low area in them which after rain or excess watering are inaccessible by tractor. And therefore, pesticides and fungicides cannot be applied leaving the strawberry plants prone to diseases and pests. We come in and identify the low areas and then spray them all with applications recommended by the agronomist."
While looking to create a pest suppressive landscape, drones can be of great use in Australia's 332 million hectares of livestock farms which is 10 times the size of land used for crops. As overgrazing, drought, and the warmer climate have been turning pastures into degraded land, demand for pasture seeding is growing, now added onto Fleming's long list of pilot jobs. The modular design of XAG spray drone allows it to switch into a "flying spreader" within minutes when embarked on a custom spreading attachment.
"Depending on application rate, we can seed up to 15 hectares an hour. Now hopefully we get some more rain at the end of the week to help it sprout," he said. It is hoped that the more precise, safer method of distributing grass seeds would be scaled up to rehabilitate the fertile land of Australia.