Can drones deliver health and safety benefits to farmers by reducing the amount of time they have to spend on quad bikes?
That’s something WorkSafe aims to test in a trial involving 15 farms around the North Island.
“The drone trial is essentially about putting another tool in the toolbox to help farmers manage risk,” WorkSafe Design Lead Noa Woolloff says.
“From what we can see, the effectiveness of using drones to carry out tasks around the farm to reduce quad bike and side-by-side use hasn’t been studied before.”
The remote-controlled flying units won’t eliminate the need for quad bikes altogether. But they could be used for tasks such as checking gates are closed and water troughs are filled, perhaps even for helping round up stock on steeper slopes.
“Think also of all the damage caused and access roads cut off when Cyclone Gabrielle blew through. Can drones make it easier and safer after flooding and slips to get out to the far-flung paddocks and hillsides to check on animals and fencelines?” Noa asks.
As well as the potential productivity benefits from reducing travel time, WorkSafe is keen to learn from farmers involved in the trial whether they experience other benefits, such as reduced fatigue and staff retention as team members enjoy getting into using modern drone technology.
Noa said there was no shortage of farmer volunteers when WorkSafe put out the call earlier this year – including from 18 farmers who saw it mentioned in the Federated Farmers Friday Flash e-Newsletter.
Fifteen sheep and beef farms from Northland down to Dannevirke have been selected for the trial, which will include training held on-farm to get farmers and team members up to speed with using the drones WorkSafe will provide.
The trial will be rolled out in two stages. Initially it gets off the ground at two farms that already have robust data on existing quad bike and side-by-side kilometres travelled by use of GPS and a tracking system called Fleetpin. After training, the drones will be used on the two farms for 12 months and WorkSafe will conduct interviews with participants to gauge whether and how workloads and tasks have changed, and whether quad/side by side kilometres dropped.
The second phase will see the trial rolled out to the 13 other farms once pre-drone GPS and Fleetpin tracking data has been collected for vehicles on those properties.
“So all up we’re talking about a 24-month trial period,” Noa says.
Once the evidence is in and evaluated, and if it shows that drones did make a significant difference reducing quad bike use on hillsides and remote tracks, “we’ll look at our options as a regulator to further support use of this sort of technology in the sector”.
SafeWork – WorkSafe’s equivalent in New South Wales – has a subsidy scheme in place for farmers who purchase drones.
“I’m not necessarily saying that’s the way we’d go if it’s shown in the trial that drones are effective but it might be an option that encourages more farmers to pick up these technologies,” Noa says.