Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, are part of a growing trend toward precision agriculture: using technology to reduce costs and maximize yields. Dr. John Church from Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is leading the way in developing applications for the technology in the cattle sector.
“Drone technology has real potential as a tool for cattlemen,” says Church. “It’s a way to extend your vision and bring more information to the producer.”
Church and his team are testing drones equipped with infrared thermography cameras that detect infrared energy emitted from objects and convert it to temperature. The result is an image of temperature distribution that allows ranchers to find cattle on the range, even under tree canopies. Being able to detect differences in body temperature in animals can also be used to find sick animals, and evaluate metabolic efficiency to help select more efficient stock.
“New Zealand and Australia have been using drones for livestock, and it has been used for other animals for conservation work, but I am sure that we are the first to use drones with infrared thermography,” says Church.
Anyone who has managed cattle through the winter can appreciate the value of being able to find cattle without having to track them through the trees themselves, or wander through the pens in the dark to identify a sick animal.
Using thermography as a proxy for feed efficiency is new territory, and is expected to be a boon for breeding programs.
“If we can measure the temperature of the head, we can get some indication of metabolic efficiency and select more efficient animals,” Church explains.
With funding through the Growing Forward 2 Canada-B.C. Agri-Innovation program, delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C., the first phase of this project has validated the utility and value of using infrared thermography and allowed Church and his research team to develop practical information and guidelines for ranchers interested in using the technology in their operations.
One of the first questions that had to be answered was how close you could fly a drone without disturbing the cattle. Flights with ranchers in B.C., and working with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization — International Vaccine Centre at the University of Saskatchewan found that cattle are very tolerant to the noise and movement of drones, allowing them to fly within three metres close observation.
“It seems to scare the cattle if they see the drone take off, so it’s better if you fly in at a height of 15 metres and gradually drop down,” says Church, sharing some flying tips. “They also don’t like to feel the downdraft on their backs, so come in from the side, not directly over them.”
So far, Church and his team have tested 10 drones, evaluating which configurations are better suited to use on the range and in closer quarters like commercial feedlots. He recommends the DJI Inspire 1 as a consistently strong performer among the commercially available options. Two important features to consider are weight — getting a drone heavy enough to avoid getting blown around by the wind — and battery life.
“A lot of people get fixated on long flying times, but we have found the sweet spot is 20 minutes,” says Church. “Unfortunately cold weather can really sap the lithium polymer batteries and while the drones operate fine, the flight times drop quickly.”
Learning to fly the drones and work with the technology that interfaces with them is a skill unto itself.
“I’ve had a lot of success with young students, and it’s really good if you can get an ex-gamer,” he says, noting in all seriousness that they have the reflexes and familiarity with the computer systems that has taken him longer to learn.
Tamara Leigh is the senior communication strategist with the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C.