VIDEO: Flying high in Bothwell

By: Anna Game-Lopata, Video by: Stephen Dwight

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Tasmanian grower Will Bignell is combining his passion for flying, computer games and farming into an intriguing business that could ultimately benefit the whole sector. Anna Game-Lopata reports.

You have to be made of tough stuff to farm in the Tasmanian Central Highlands town of Bothwell. The day I arrive, winds from the arctic can cut through a sheet of glass; and they make short work of me.

But the weather doesn’t bother sheep and poppy farmer Will Bignell or his business partner Kyle Gardner, who chortle in delight over the amazing machine they’ve developed and assembled from the ground up; even though there’s little chance it can do its job properly today.

It’s an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a UAV or drone, which they say is the future of farming and the focus of their unique new business.

Sheep and cattle are the backbone of Bothwell. Thorpe Farm, established by Bignell’s Scottish forebears, has been in the family for 192 years. Bignell is the seventh generation.

Just over 2,000 hectares, Thorpe Farm has hills 900m above sea level, bush runs great for wool and open dry land flats optimal for meat. It also has a river which has presided over 160 years of irrigation for pasture production and the oldest flour mill in the southern hemisphere, built in 1823, before Melbourne existed.

"We’ve traditionally been a large-scale wool and cattle grazing operation going for super fine wools," Bignell confirms.

"Our core business is still sheep, but we now run a mixed enterprise of 12,000 sheep made up 50:50 Merinos for wool between 18 and 16 micron and a composite meat breed including a nucleus flock of milking sheep."

For Bignell getting into drones was a natural progression.

"I had a passion for flying; I grew up around planes, got my pilot’s licence at a young age and I’ve been heavily into aerobatics and radio control all my life," he enthuses.

"I love making machinery and computer games so I’ve got a tight handle on software code. I played all sorts of stuff, with my worst addiction being FarmSim [Farming Simulator].

"As a farmer, I researched precision agriculture and I was interested in GPS. I bought guidance first, got myself on tramlines, then moved into auto steer gear and section control.

"Once I got my head around it and was confident, I started thinking, I’ve got over $18,000 worth of gear but I’m just switching it on and off. I’m running this corrected GPS signal but my crops are still patchy, I’ve still got things to tweak."

Five years ago Bignell says he was using a hand-held GPS to map out the field and trying to get the technologies to talk to each other without success; "getting frustrated and finding it all price prohibitive".

Since then, an advance in the world of radio control delivering multi rotors suddenly made it more affordable to keep a crude four motor helicopter flying.

Bignell started to see the dots join up between the GPS system on his tractor, the variable rate gear and what you might be able to achieve with a drone.

Find out more about Bignell’s work in the upcoming edition of NewFarmMachinery magazine, on-sale November 3. Subscribe to the magazine to never miss an issue.

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