What to know before investing in a drone

Flight safety, training and stockmanship will help you get the most out of adding a drone to your operation

With many agricultural uses, drones are becoming one of the top new tools to catch the attention of beef producers. If you’re unsure where to begin, there are several areas to consider before investing in a drone of your own.

Dr. John Church, associate professor in the faculty of science at Thompson Rivers University, works with drones for ranching-related applications. A regular speaker at drone training workshops, Church recommends interested producers start by taking a course to learn how to fly drones. A course offered by Land View, a drone training program based in Alberta, is one of his favourites, as it focuses specifically on agricultural applications and students can take home a small drone for practice.

Before attempting your first flight, be aware of the Transport Canada laws regarding drones. “The biggest one is making sure you’re not flying in controlled airspace,” says Church.

Many new drones currently available have an active collision avoidance feature for flight safety. “I would say the most important thing is don’t turn that off when you’re starting out.”

John Church with the university’s most advanced M210 drone, using the Superzoom Z30 lens and dual thermal camera.
photo: Supplied

Based on the type of drone you choose, you may be required to obtain a Basic Pilot’s Certificate to fly it. If the drone is lighter than 250 grams, no license is needed. If the drone is 250 grams or heavier, you are required to have the basic certificate. The test for this can be taken online through Transport Canada’s website. Most beef producers will only require this basic license, Church says.

There is also an advanced pilot’s license available.

“If you wanted to do research, depending on the type of research, you can file for a special flight operations certificate,” he says. “The advanced is really meant for people that are either using drones for academia or for commercial, whereas the basic license is really meant for recreation.”

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For beginners, Church recommends starting with a smaller, more affordable model, such as the DJI Mavic Mini, which retails for $450.

“It’s got amazing flight speeds, it’s got amazing flight times, it can fly for 30 minutes. It can stream high-definition video and very high-resolution photography, not just back to your phone but also to the SD card onboard.”

As it only weighs 249 grams, a license isn’t required to fly it, and despite its small size he has found it to be stable in the wind when flying.

For good value, Church is a fan of the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom Enterprise, which comes with extra batteries and a hub charger, extending your flight time. The battery is also the main area to require maintenance. Don’t store the battery fully charged, as that shortens its lifespan.

“Aside from the batteries, drones themselves, like all other electric vehicles, require very little maintenance,” he says.

For beef producers using their first drones, Church advised starting with basic uses, such as checking cattle in distant pastures.

“It’s phenomenal for extending your vision,” he says, suggesting using your drone to check fence lines before moving cattle to new paddocks or to check on water sources. “Drones are really good at taking pictures of water troughs and feed troughs to see if there’s any feed remaining.”

People are also developing ways to use more affordable drones with small, multispectral cameras for forage and crop mapping applications, which Church anticipates seeing in the near future.

“What we are definitely exploring in the future are the same drones that we’re using to manage cattle are the same drones we’re using to manage our pastures.”

While drones can be used to move cattle, they may be initially scared by the aircraft.

“They’re not normally attacked from above by aerial predators. So if you stay high when you first observe the drones and you keep around 30 metres, they might notice it but they don’t want to run from it,” he says.

From there, try coming down a bit lower with each flight. “In my experience you can get down to 10 metres with no problem.”

At that distance, a drone with a good zoom camera will allow you to easily read ear tags. Another best practice for using drones with cattle is to avoid taking off right beside animals, and avoid flying directly over top of cattle.

“I think the drones in the end, for me, are a far better tool for just observing the cattle out in the pasture. Certainly you can use them to move cattle and to haze them, but I think it then negates its use as an observational tool.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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