Tony Gibert – Queensland Drones
This months community profile is on Tony Gilbert, the CEO and Chief Remote Pilot of Queensland Drones. A leading commercially-certified provider of aerial mapping, aerial surveys and aerial inspection in Queensland and Northern NSW.
Company name: Queensland Drones
Position: CEO and Chief Remote Pilot
Business type: Service Provider
Industry: Aerial Mapping and Survey
When and how did you first get into the drone industry?
I was interested in nature photography and was given my first drone in 2014. I was absolutely captivated by the new perspective the drone offered me and decided to invest in something more professional and see if I could make a living as an aerial photographer. I started my business, Queensland Drones, and obtained my commercial RPAS Pilot’s License in November 2015 and became a full time drone service provider in July 2016.
Can you give an example of a recent project?
We now focus mostly on aerial mapping and aerial surveys and our main industry focus is agriculture, although we do a lot of work in environmental management and property development as well due to the close synergies between these industries when it comes to land management needs.
One recent project we undertook was to map a 1000 acre cattle farm in extremely rugged country in the Great Dividing Range. The current owners are redeveloping the property with a view to selling it in about five years. Some of this property is so rugged the owners have really never seen it. The land elevation varies over 400m from the bottom of the valleys to the ridgetops. Our task was to provide them firstly with a detailed overview of the property in general and precision contour maps for all parts of the property. Further to that we are providing a detailed water flow model for the property to inform placement of dams and erosion controls, and we are providing a detailed “farm infrastructure” map showing all the pastures, tracks, gates, feed points, irrigation points, tanks, buildings, etc that make up the property.
Another recent project we undertook was to map both sides of a rural road and provide very precise elevation data to inform a 3D profile view of an irrigation channel that runs down one side of the road, under the road, and then down the other side into a neighbour’s property. The neighbour had complained that works undertaken across the road had significantly reduced the water flows to his property and our project was to help inform a compensation case being prepared by an environmental management consultancy. Our data helped to prove that recent works by the neighbouring property had actually caused water flow in parts of the channel to be reversed. The consultant said that without our data, they could not have proved this.
Another use case we have undertaken recently is capturing and processing advanced multispectral vegetation imagery to help predict harvest readiness and approximate yield in crops like avocados, macadamias, etc. Where growers are farming thousands of hectares, often spread over large geographic areas, with many crops coming to maturity at around the same time, having sound management data to tell them where and when to send harvest resources and equipment can generate massive savings and ensure maximum yield from field to consumer. This will become a large part of our operations in the future. The data we collect also informs year on year performance comparisons for these orchards.
What changes/developments have you noticed over the last few years?
The part of the industry we entered in 2016, aerial photography, is now massively over-serviced and the barrier to entry has fallen so low that unqualified and inexperienced operators can undercut the professionals and clients really have no way to understand the difference. We no longer operate in the sector and the major change we are seeing now in the sectors we focus on are that flying drones is less than 20% of the work and less than 10% of the skillset. Our major skills now are in aerial survey design, ground control collection, checkpoint validation, orthogrammetric image processing, point cloud manipulation and production of accurate and very precise outputs that can be consumed directly by CAD systems, design software and the latest GPS-controller farm machinery. So as well as UAV pilot skills, we now require extensive surveyor skills and GIS processing skills.
What challenges have you experienced in your time?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced, aside from the ever changing regulatory requirement, is that our core agricultural market is on a very slow technology uptake curve generally. Although we can easily demonstrate the ability to save growers a lot of money through crop emergence counting, through crop health analysis, through identification of weeds and pests in crops, through precision calculation and application of fertilisers, nutrients, herbicides and pesticides, all of which have the potential to significantly reduce crop input costs while at the same time increasing crop yields, but farmers are very slow to adopt these changes. They don’t want to risk what they have for the promise of what could be. So it’s a slow process through demonstrations, comparison and trial plot analysis to win their confidence. Also, getting to the actual growers is very challenging as they are typically busy from dawn to dusk and more, and you can no longer just drive up their driveways, due to biosecurity restrictions. So we have to use referrals through third parties to get to the growers in many cases. At the moment we are mainly working with very large growers who easily understand the leveraging power of what we provide, but it’s the smaller growers who would benefit most from what we do.
Where do you see the Australian drone industry in 10 years time?
We are facing global level competition in the industry now, especially in the agriculture sector. Very large multinational drone service operators are coming into Australia and buying up the top local service providers to give them virtually instant market access. If the local industry does not lift its game, and if our markets don’t support us, the global operators will control the entire market within 10 years and there will be very little in the way of professional skills, personalised service or relationship business when that happens. The industry will become a factory with shrink-wrapped services aimed at the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately our state and federal governments are easily wooed by these multinationals and often give them preferential treatment over local operators. We have seen this with Boeing, Google, Amazon and Uber, to name just a few who have been able to win regulatory exemptions that local operators could only dream of.
To find out more about Tony and Queensland visit qlddrones.com.au