Blue sky farming

Drones have become valuable tools for farmers. A wide range of models is available capable of many different tasks, Delwyn Dickey reports.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones are basically flying robots and have been around for a while now.

They are being seen as just part of the job for some commercial operations, from real estate to construction.

Based in the Waikato, AgFirst consultant James Allen has been using drones for several years now on the job and has bought them for various other AgFirst offices. While not in every office they are more common now, he says, with the horticultural consultants probably using them the most, especially for apple orchards.

They are a good tool for farm consultants too. And because you can pick one up for just a few thousand dollars they’re pretty affordable, he reckons.

There are plenty of different makes and models ranging up to more than $100,000. So, finding something that will fit your budget and working needs shouldn’t be hard. But higher risk with what you want to do with the machine, comes with higher costs and higher certification to operate – more on that later.

Having cost around $2000 James keeps his DJI AIR 2S in his car. It doesn’t get used every day, he says, but he appreciates being able to bring it out whenever it is needed. The unit came with three batteries each of which have a flight life of 15 minutes. The camera gets the most use – taking good-quality still images and video.

AgFirst consultant James Allen at the controls of his drone.

“Fifteen minutes’ flight time might not sound a lot but when you’re moving at 50kmh you can cover a lot of ground.

“Being able to take videos of the farm to share if someone is thinking of buying or selling a farm is useful,” he says.

Also useful is being able to allow share milking applicants to get a feel for a farm as part of an initial interview.

“I’m in Waikato so if they’re in the South Island this saves them the cost of flying up to have a proper look at the farm in the early stages.”

While he knows of several dairy farmers who use them, James is surprised they aren’t more widely used.

Agricultural consultants and farmers alike would likely find ways to use them thinking more laterally about what they could be used for, he reckons, especially with labour shortages.

“Generally, farmers are going for the less expensive drones,” he says. Drones are pretty quiet and are good for watching stock without disturbing them.

“Farmers usually use them to keep an eye on stock, a quick scout around to check on water troughs, the condition of the fences and raceways, or in winter to make sure the cattle haven’t gone over the break.”

One farmer he knows, saves time and labour by having an automatic Batt-Latch gate release on the race for cows to walk up to the shed. A drone is then used to check no animals have been left behind.

When noise is needed to get animals moving along, sirens, dog barking and other sounds can be used. Animals can get used to the same sound all the time and may start ignoring it, so being able to turn on a variety of different sounds is handy.

Health and safety benefits come to the fore with staff able to check if stock are safe after storms when trees may be down and there are slips, or flooding and flood damage around the farm, without physically going out and tackling potentially damaged raceways and paddocks. If you’re also running dry stock on the hills mustering with drones can be safer for staff on rough terrain.

Optical and thermal imaging cameras are an option.

Picking up heat sources, rather than needing light as our eyes do, means thermal imaging can clearly see stock in low light or at night potentially spotting animals down banks or in dense bush. It’s also useful for scouting for stray dogs around boundaries, possums, cats, rabbits or other pests.

With geo-fencing becoming more popular, being able to send the drone to nudge stray animals back behind the virtual fence is also likely to appeal.

None of the dairy farmers James knows uses drones for spraying although he can see the advantage of spraying patches of gorse and blackberry in hard-to-reach places.

The bigger commercial spray drones can cost anything from $40,000 to $100,000 and are classified as aircraft with pilot certification needed.

Casual drone operators – provided they stay within certain rules – generally don’t need certification (although it’s recommended). But because farms are commercial operations all users should be certified, Drone Training New Zealand’s Will Dolman says.

Will says the Tauranga-based organisation runs training courses each month with about six people in each – about 70 people per year, with private courses offered for corporate groups. Most are doing land surveying followed by real estate agents, then photographers, construction, and farming. Both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and WorkSafe New Zealand have raised concerns about the numbers of drones being used on farms without proper certification, he says.

Eight organisations around the country can provide training with a couple in the South Island and the rest in the north. With certification and training providers often willing to travel to organised rural groups there is plenty of opportunity for farmers and staff to get up to speed.

Part 101 certification involves a two-day course and costs about $1000. All farmers and staff using the drone need to complete this course first, even if they plan on going on to the Part 102 certification.

Airspace around the country is a commercial working environment where planes and helicopters operate. There could be catastrophic consequences for a plane or helicopter should it collide with a drone in flight.

As they also train helicopter pilots, Drone Training NZ takes people on their drone courses up in a helicopter to really hammer home the risks wayward drones present to helicopter pilots and passengers, and other aircraft.

It’s all about managing levels of risk, Will says. If you want to use the drone for anything more than under 101 rules – like pest management at night – it will involve more risk. So you will need Part 102 certification which will show you how to manage that risk.

While Part 101 might have punched a hole in your wallet, Part 102 is where it starts getting really expensive. The course costs start at about $5500. Once you have the certificate you will be audited every year to make sure you’re up to speed with rules and regulations, and are still a competent operator.

The catch with this is there is a long waiting list to get your certification through CAA – about 12-14 months. So If you’re wanting to use the big T30 or T40 spray units, one drone retailer advises farmers to get their certificates before buying the machine.

Because of the expense of the machine and certification, farmer groups might also want to consider an agreement where one farmer gets certified and buys the spray machine while the others agree to contract them to do their spraying.

101 rules


  • Drones can’t be flown higher than 120 metres with this certificate. or within 4km of an aerodrome – unless you have clearance from Air Traffic Control.
  • Permission isn’t needed within that area if you’re flying a “shielded operation” where you are flying very close to but under the height of trees or buildings. (See the full set of rules for this.)
  • The drone can’t weigh more than 25kg loaded and must be kept in a safe and well-maintained condition.
  • You can only fly during the day (which means thermal night flying is out without the next level certificate Part 102).
  • Drones must give way to all crewed aircraft – planes, helicopters, hang gliders, and paragliders and operators must land the drone immediately if another aircraft approaches.
  • You must be able to see your unmanned aircraft with your own eyes at all times. So you shouldn’t be watching it through binoculars, a monitor or smartphone. And don’t fly it behind objects or through or above fog and cloud.
  • Get consent before flying over people and other people’s property.
  • There are several no-fly zones – check for any airspace restrictions in your area before you fly.