Drones are emerging as the latest tool in biological pest control on Australian farms.
A former Queensland strawberry farmer turned inventor has begun using drones to spread predatory insects over farmland so they can kill pests that would otherwise eat the crops.
“It’s going to be the only way that beneficial bugs are going to be dispensed in the future,” Sunshine Coast inventor Nathan Roy said.
Over 18 months, Mr Roy has developed and trialled a drone system using an eight-bladed helicopter carrying a special bag with a spreading device.
“You have to be very careful how you handle the bugs. You have to store them and you have to cart them the correct way. And then when you’re doing the mixing on site there’s a bit of a technique to that as well,” Mr Roy said.
It has been a very big learning curve for the inventor, from getting patents to obtaining the necessary licences from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
What would take four or five people, two or three hours to put out, over a couple of hectares, they can do in 10 minutesFarmer Merv Schiffke
Key to achieving success has been finding the Goldilocks spot in the sky — how high the drone should work above the crops.
Too high and not enough bugs get where they need to be, but too low, and there are too many.
Mr Roy has also researched the best time of day, humidity and wind.
But Mr Roy has had success on a number of farms including Merv Schiffke’s strawberry operation at Bellmere, north of Brisbane.
“All your insects and stuff there, they can adapt quickly and get resistance to chemicals, but they can’t get resistance to some little critter eating them,” Mr Schiffke said.
Currently people spend hours spreading beneficial insects on crops by hand — a task accomplished in minutes by an unmanned aerial vehicle.
“What would take four or five people, two or three hours to put out over a couple of hectares, they can do in 10 minutes,” Mr Schiffke said.
“So I think it’s going to be very effective. Its going to be very uniform and I think what they’re doing is going to be something the industry will use into the future.”
Using drones could also have big implications for the rearing of beneficial pests, taking it from a labour intensive and expensive niche market to the mainstream.
“That’s been a real hurdle for us. We get these great bio control agents and we get them out to our growers and then they often find it’s a bit laborious you know,” entomologist Dan Papacek, who runs the Bugs For Bugs insectary at Mundubbera.
“So the next step is going to be this step towards improved, mechanised release systems and that’s a very exciting part of our way forward I believe,” Mr Papacek said.