Updated 9 Oct 2015, 11:56am
PHOTO: Lychee grower Craig Van Rooyen is developing an automated drone system to combat pests such as birds and bats. (Submitted: Craig Van Rooyen)
A Queensland lychee grower is investigating using an automated drone to help combat the damage done to his orchard by flying foxes and lorikeets.
- AUDIO: Lychee grower Craig Van Rooyen says drones could revolutionise pest control in his orchard. (ABC Rural)
Mr Van Rooyen said in the past he had tried numerous tactics to control the pests - from huge lights and sound generators to drape netting and patrolling with a shotgun - but none were completely effective.
"We thought if we could have something that I didn't have to be out there, because I've got to be at the packing shed looking after staff, if I could have something that was out there doing its job so that I could do something else it would be perfect," he said.
"We thought a UAV would fit that profile perfectly, but it would have to be automated.
"You can get a UAV to take off, fly a course, come back, land, recharge and go off again and that's a great step.
"But even better, another step forward from that, would be to have a detection method that you could detect the bats coming in with, say infrared or some device, and then send a drone off directly to those initial scouts that are coming in."
This season the device research will focus on perfecting the detection system, which Mr Van Rooyen said was critical to eventually automating the system.
"We did quite a lot of detection recording last season, which is all being compiled at the moment to let us know what methods are working with detection," he said.
"This will be the first season that we've actually got something that could do the job of flying the orchard.
"It won't be talking to the detection devices at this stage, but at some point we will have the university's detection methods linked up with the device and hopefully have a fully automated system down the track."
Right now I'm only able to look after a certain area, but if I could have the likes of drones assisting me I could plant bigger areas. - Craig Van Rooyen, lychee grower
Mr Van Rooyen said he was also working with the university and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to ensure the drone met regulatory requirements.
"We have to be there so that we comply with all the regulations," he said.
"So we will still be watching, monitoring, but it will be able to fly a track and we'll see how it goes.
"We don't want anyone to be put in any danger at any stage, but we will be able to regulate the height of the machines so they won't fly above the height of our (light) poles.
"Our poles are sticking 20 metres into the air. These drones will be programmed to fly lower than 20 metres."
Mr Van Rooyen said the drones also would be programmed to stay within his property boundary and would be monitored via computer to prevent any risk to safety.
In the early stages it would be used in conjunction with existing control methods such as lights and netting.
"At this stage it's just an add-on, it's another tool in the toolbox to try and reduce the pest impact," he said.
But if it proves successful, Mr Van Rooyen said it could not only revolutionise his farm practice, but also change the entire industry.
"It would be hugely significant," he said.
"If we could have an automated system, not only would that free me up during the day to do other tasks, which would be of great benefit, but it could potentially ... allow us to plant bigger areas and have these drones helping us out."
Mr Van Rooyen said export markets such as China and the US presented a huge opportunity for lychee growers, but the impact of birds and flying foxes limited the planted areas to what the farmer could patrol.
"Right now I'm only able to look after a certain area, but if I could have the likes of drones assisting me I could plant bigger areas, which has a flow-on effect," he said.
"It has potential for us to expand our industry."
First posted 5 Oct 2015