Growing Innovation: Issue 12, July 27, 2016

Drone technology taking flight in lychee industry

Craig van Rooyen, Sweet Sensations, QLD

For lychee grower Craig van Rooyen the sky is quite literally the limit when it comes to innovation in his industry. The Queensland-based grower has been working with Central Queensland University on exciting new drone technology for deterring birds and bats – and his idea is taking flight so well it even caught the attention of Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during a tour of regional Queensland back earlier this year.

“The PM’s visit certainly drummed up a bit of press,” Craig said. “It was good to see the interest in what we’re doing and about technology in the industry. I’m really excited by the huge potential for innovation in horticulture as a whole.”

Craig’s use of drones came out of one of the key challenges in lychee growing, which he said was battling unwelcome visitors such as flying foxes and lorikeets.

“I’m from a conservation background – I used to be a game ranger when I lived in South Africa, before I moved to Australia nearly 20 years ago. That means I don’t like to shoot anything if I don’t have to. So I wanted to find something that was a non-lethal method of managing these pests and also a method that got away from the idea of permanently netting the property,” Craig said. While nets are popular for helping manage flying intruders, Craig said that being in cyclone zone meant risking a devastating situation should nets get ripped down or pulled about, damaging lychee trees in the process.

“Essentially I wanted to find a solution that was a bit different and out there, that could be done relatively cheaply and that could be effective. So I looked towards technology.”

With the idea of using drones in his head, Craig got to talking with engineering expert Dr Ben Taylor, from Central Queensland University. “He thought it was a great idea for the uni’s engineering sector to take on and laid out a plan. He wanted to first see if we could work out the best way to detect birds and bats coming into the orchard as a separate project. Then find a good way to deter them, and then put that deterrent onto a drone to keep the birds and bats out, so we’re stopping the pests from coming into the orchard rather than shooting them once they’re in or letting them land on a net and peck through it.”

The trial of drones on Craig’s farm has run over the last two years, with about five different unmanned aerial vehicles trialled so far. “We’ve got some exciting new ideas for the season this year, too. The use of drones is still a work in progress and we’ve got another couple of years to go, but it looks very promising,” he said.

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A drone flying over Craig’s property (left), and the spoils of his lychee-growing efforts (right)

“For me the ultimate goal is to get to the stage of having an automated system that can detect the animals coming in, then tell the drone to take off, scare off the pests with lights and sounds, then come back and land,” Craig said. “I don’t want to have to physically be out there, because there’s so much else to get on with in this business.”

And Craig certainly keeps busy. As well as growing about 4000 lychee trees spanning six different varieties and producing about 100 tonnes annually, he also grows avocados and macadamias on his farm on the Burnett River. Craig is also a member of the recently formed lychee Strategic Investment Advisory Panel, and Deputy Chairman of Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers.

“I come from four generations of mainly cane farming in South Africa and did my tertiary education in agriculture, so I’ve always been a part of growing things and never shied away from the hard work of it all,” he said. “I enjoy lychees in particular because we grew up eating them and they’re a lovely fruit that we can supply in the Christmas period, but I also like the fact that it’s quite a challenging crop. There’s a lot more to it than just working with the dirt.”

And speaking of dirt, soil health is high on Craig’s list of passions too. “As well as using technology, my other big interest is looking after the soil, because I think a lot of soils get beaten to death with monoculture,” he said.

“When I bought my land it was in very poor shape as far as the soil was concerned and it was a challenge to bring it back to health. I’ve been using compost on my farm and think that’s made a huge different to the trees, and I use soil microbes, and I’ve been overseas to see how they grow tree crops in different countries. Gone are times where you just focus on your little patch – you’ve got to see how different things are being done around the world and adopt the best practices.”

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