New remote sensing air fertilizer technology tested


The latest aerial top dressing technology is being trialled at Manawatu by Ravensdown and Massey University.

During the trials the hopper opens automatically to spread fertilizer from the air, allowing the pilot to concentrate solely on flying.

An aircraft was flying over Pickwick Farm near Whanganui to test fertilizer spread. Half metre cones were spread around several paddocks and they caught the fertilizer so Massey could test the results.

Ravensdown technical development manager Michael White said trials were being held to make putting on fertilizer more precise for farmers so less would leach or go into waterways.

“If we have sensitive areas and we don’t want to put fertilizer on, then we programme the software in the aircraft not to put it on there.” He said new technology allowed the hopper to open on its own, rather than being operated by the pilot as had been the case before.

“It’s a piece of software, where the GPS talks to the computer in the plane. And that controls the gate and opens and lets the fertilizer out.” White added the software would allow for wind and different terrain, adding that two aircraft had the software installed at the moment.

“It’s early days for getting it into our aircraft flying on Ravensdown products, but we haven’t shut the door and others might choose to use it.”

Massey University precision agriculture senior lecturer Dr Miles Grafton was checking fertilizer landing in test hoppers on the Whanganui farm and supervising the PhD student running the field work, Sue Chok.

Grafton said trials were showing that the fertilizer had been dropped accurately in the right place. He added that each cone of half a square metre caught about two grams of fertilizer each time the aircraft flew over the site.

“We collect the fertilizer in a bag. Each bag is labelled so we know which cone it has come from…, and if the rate is 100kg/hectare then we’d expect to get about two grams.”

Chok said they were trying to refine and calibrate the technology on the aircraft. She said the rate of fertilizer applied on an area could be varied.

“The plane flies over. We have three sets of areas and three sets of cones and what I am trying to see is the relationship between application rate, the speed the plane is travelling and the width at which it spreads,” she said.

“Previously, most of the control was in the hands of the pilot. But here, we’re trying to give the pilot more ability to fly more safely. So the hopper opens automatically, and that’s new.”

The Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) project was a $10 million partnership between the government and the fertilizer company, to work towards remote sensing of farm nutrients from the air.

White said it would be a game changer for hill country farms which would only applied fertilizer where it was needed, rather than farm-wide. He said dairy farms on flat land could do soil testing in a paddock to find its fertility unlike a hill country sheep and beef farm which would take weeks to sample.

“The PGP is around camera sensing and can we have the sensitivity to give us a map across that hill country farm. That would be a huge step forward.”

He said the fertilizer company would not have gone into the PGP unless it thought it had a chance of succeeding with the remote fertilizer mapping.

White said the Government and Ravensdown were putting in $5m each over the seven year project.

“It is not guaranteed, but we did do some preliminary work before we went into this PGP. We have gates at points through the seven years. And we ask is it hitting the mark? If we [Ravensdown] don’t think it’ll work, we’ll stop the project,” he said

“We’re in the third year of the project now, and we have enough confidence in it. It’s hit the markers so far.”

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