Wednesday, 22 July 2015 01:07

VIDEOS: New anti-pest agricultural drone in high-tech Aussie trial


A long range unmanned aerial vehicle drone is being trialled in Australia, delivering a powerful tool in the fight against agriculture’s billion dollar invasive pest problem.

Australia has a billion-dollar problem with invasive pests, and has battled them for decades, but now a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone is undergoing trials to become an affordable new and, for civilian usage, next-gen surveillance and actionable intelligence gathering tool to combat a serious farming, agricultural, and rural/regional infrastructure monitoring problem.

The company behind the trial is called Ninox Robotics, which says it is ’utilising advanced fixed-wing drones for invasive pest detection and management, infrastructure asset monitoring, bio-security and other agri-business purposes.’

In use are ‘state of the art UAVs’ from BlueBird Aerosystems which offer ‘advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests in rural areas’.

Ninox says the approval of the trial has included a number of firsts for a non-military operator in Australia, which include:

  • an enhanced flight ceiling of over 400m, enabling Ninox Robotics’ systems to cover more ground efficiently;
  • flight range beyond visual line of sight, all autonomously; and
  • the ability to fly at night, thereby enabling the thermal camera to be at its most effective.

Ninox touts its ability to fly the drones at night as ‘particularly effective,’ given that ‘most of the pest activity menacing rural farms is more prevalent at night.’

The company held a press event this morning at Sydney Tower unveiling its drone, a large UAV which needs just 200m clearance to be propelled into the air via a catapult and which lands via parachute, with a 50km range and 80km if the control tower is placed on a hill - and a world record range of 120kms - with a top air speed of 120km/h.

Ninox Robotics says usage of UAVs delivers a new weapon in the fight for ‘unparalleled effectiveness in pest detection and enhance existing control techniques,’ and one which is described as ‘a quantum leap over any of the current pest intelligence gathering methods currently available.’

On display as part of the presentationwas an impressive looking company video showcasing parts of the trial process, including drone launch and landing, and the drone handling specific test scenarios in giving actionable intelligence to the viewers - in this case Ninox Robotics’ drone pilots and generally what would be the property owners and/or managers and administrators themselves.

That video is embedded below, while a second, longer video I took of the entire event is at the end of this article.

Marcus Ehrlich, MD of Ninox Robotics, said, “Australian landholders and managers have been struggling against the problem of invasive pest species for decades, including feral dogs, pigs, deer and rabbits. The issue has caused cumulatively billions of dollars in damages and lost revenue, as well as significant destruction to the country’s unique biodiversity.”

The company touts its UAVs as having ‘world-class dual-payload cameras that can switch easily between normal visual spectrum (RGB) and far infrared (thermal) sight’ - which in plain English are vastly more effective at night than a pair of eyes.

It also explains that video captured by the camera ‘is streamed live to ground control stations that are manned by highly trained UAV pilots, as well as passive screens viewed by landholders and other relevant stakeholders, enabling the viewers to determine the location, number and type of targeted pests.’

This way, pest control management staff can get information in real time to better successfully deal with pestilence problems.

The Ninox Robotics drone has already undergone the first phase its of its three week trial period last week in Queensland, which the company says proved that its military-grade drones ‘could detect invasive pests from the air and provide that information in real-time to a pest management officer’.

The three-week trial period has ‘been designed to test the effectiveness of the UAV’s thermal imaging camera to spot invasive pests and domestic animals in a variety of terrain types both at night and in the daytime. During the trial, the information gathered will be combined in real-time with existing control techniques in order to measure the efficacy of the system and its application.’

This week, the company says the trial ‘will be conducted across farms and national parks in Moonie QLD, and will be followed by another trial week in New England in NSW. The upcoming open day on 22 July in Moonie will enable farmers, government officials and other stakeholders to see the drones in action.’

Marcus Ehrlich continued, “Implementing this trial has been a massive undertaking, working with Australian aviation regulators to test our UAV’s capabilities above and beyond what has been done in this field to date. A drone-related project of this scale has never been conducted by a civilian company in Australia, and we believe it’s the first application of its kind for UAV technology in agriculture anywhere in the world.”

The Ninox Robotics UAVs, which have been supplied by world leading tactical UAV manufacturer Bluebird Aerosystems, Israel, and have a wingspan of almost 3m and fuselage of over 1m. An individual UAV’s average flight time is around four hours and it can cover an area of up to 100km2 in this time period. It has a top air speed of 120km/h.

Pending the planned outcome of the trial and additional regulatory approval, Ninox Robotics intends to commercialise the service in the coming months, with its first team of fully trained UAV pilots able to be deployed across the country. Ninox Robotics is also exploring additional uses of the technology.

Ehrlich concluded: “We are confident that come commercialisation, Ninox Robotics will be able to offer an array of smart, high tech options for Australian government agencies and landholders in dealing with a variety of problems afflicting our continent.”

My video recording of the presentation is embedded below.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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