DATA DRONES: Technical officer Ken Laws shows off one of three high-tech drones used for collecting plant data on a whole new scale at the Hermitage Research Facility.
DATA DRONES: Technical officer Ken Laws shows off one of three high-tech drones used for collecting plant data on a whole new scale at the Hermitage Research Facility. Marian Faa

New heights for Hermitage research

THE sky is quite literally the limit for researchers at the Hermitage Research Facility just outside Warwick.

With drones as the weapon of choice, the Queensland Department of Agriculture sorghum team has been studying crops from a completely different perspective.

With an eye in the sky, the research team takes thousands of photos that are used to generate a digital three-dimensional map.

Technical officer Ken Laws never considered himself a high flyer but when the sorghum team needed a pilot to command the drone project, a love of photography and fiddling around with cameras made him the top man for the job.

"The boss walked in one day and put a little drone on my desk with a GoPro camera and said, 'There you go, learn how to fly that,'” Mr Laws said.

Three years later, he commands three different drones all rigged up with thousands of dollars' worth of specialised camera equipment.

"We were umming and ahhing about whether this was the path we should be going down, using small drones and cheap cameras but it wasn't working that well,” he said.

"Then we decided to charge into it fairly head-on and bought some larger drones and started flying seriously.”

The investment has paid off and has led to some of the country's most cutting-edge plant research.

Department of Agriculture technical officer Ken Laws uses drones and computer technology to create complex three-dimensional maps of sorghum crops to use in plant analysis. Photographed in a sorghum field with one of his drones from the Hermitage Research  Facility in Warwick.
DRONE ON: Department of Agriculture technical officer Ken Laws has applied his passion for photography and his technical skills to build specialised drones used to photograph sorghum crops. Southern Downs Regional Council

"On a flying day we take anywhere between 2000 and 10,000 photos of a single paddock and then I use a very sophisticated computer program to turn those two-dimensional photos into a three-dimension map of the crop,” he said.

The final images are so detailed researchers can zoom in to see individual millimetres on the ground.

"When we are doing work with emergent plants we are getting down to a 1mm resolution so we can see individual little spots on the leaves,” Mr Laws said.

The three-dimensional map allows plant researchers to analyse crops on a much more detailed scale without having to spend hours in the field with a magnifying glass and tape measure.

"One of the problems we have as researchers is collecting data,' Mr Laws said.

"It is such a labour- intensive thing to go out into the paddocks and get accurate data on all the different trial plots.”

Now all the data can be collected and collated into a single digital map that can be used to analyse everything from height and leaf area, temperature and even the chlorophyll levels of thousands of individual plants.

From this, researchers canglean information about the crop's overall health, levels of drought stress andwater stress.

More efficient data collection means the team can also analyse the crops more regularly to get a sense of how they are responding over time.

Mr Laws said drones werebecoming a popular toolin agriculture but theyhadn't been used on thisscale before.

"Usually people would fly higher and use the drone to get a general overview of the crop's health,” he said.

"What we are doing is flying much lower and much slower and taking a lot more photos of the crop. If we can have larger trials with more varieties, we can breed better varieties and get them out to the seed companies and into the farmers' fields at a much faster rate,” Mr Laws said.

Mr Laws spends his days travelling around Queensland and northern NSW photographing the different trial plots managed by the sorghum team.