Michel Durand and John Davison were loving their dream job, piloting 737s to foreign countries.
- Two pilots and an aircraft engineer have switched passenger jets for drones
- The drones can cover big distances, revealing the location of pest animals, their number and their habits
- The pilots hope the technology will benefit conservation and agribusiness
Their best mate, aircraft engineer Dave Storen, was into his third decade on the tarmac, making sure every airliner was fit to fly.
Then last year, the global pandemic took hold.
Almost overnight, they and the entire aviation industry were grounded. At Victoria’s Tullamarine airport, one of the world’s busiest, it was suddenly so quiet Mr Storen could hear the birds singing.
Since then, the trio has kept flying but these days with very different aircraft.
The new frontier
One year later, the three men are in Victoria’s High Country.
Mr Durand and Mr Davison are watching a large black drone hover over a steep, thickly-timbered ridge line.
Five hundred metres away in open farmland, Mr Storen is the pilot at the controls.
He’s closely watching the screen for bright shapes that indicate the presence of animals.
This sophisticated drone uses thermal sensing that can penetrate the forest’s thick canopy. Its camera can take high-resolution footage.
Two shapes come into view on the screen. Mr Storen identifies them as fallow deer, a feral pest. Mr Durand grabs a high-powered rifle and rushes out on foot.
Using radio, Mr Storen guides the hunter towards the prey.
He closes in, but not quickly enough for a chance at a fatal shot. On this occasion, the deer flit into the safety of adjoining land.
Welcome to the new frontier of aerial surveillance and feral animal control.
An all-seeing eye in the sky
“With the advancements in the technology, we’ve been able to use thermal imagery to search countryside for feral animals during the day and during the night,” Mr Storen said.
This eye in the sky can cover big distances from the air, revealing the location of pest animals, their numbers and their habits.
The technology has interest from farmers and wildlife agencies that manage land.
They’re keen to see how drones may change their approach to pest management.
“Feral deer impact agriculture, the environment and our road safety,” said Dr Annelise Wiebkin, national deer management coordinator.
“They can be difficult to control, they’re fairly elusive, they’re generally active at nighttime, so technologies that can allow us to identify where they are will be really helpful in the future.”
The idea of the drone business arose several years back.
Mr Storen, Mr Davison and Mr Durand were keen hunters.
On outback trips they immediately saw how drones could detect feral animals and their movements over vast areas.
The COVID crisis spurred them into action.
At first, to keep food on the table, they worked building farm fences.
Now, under the banner of Field Master Systems, they’re going full-time.
With contracts for drone work from national parks and farmers, the business is taking off.
They’ve recruited veteran agribusiness executive Alan Findlay to run the financials and spruik the business to the horticultural sector.
He foresees drones being capable of counting blossoms to predict fruit yields and drones that apply pesticide or herbicide in precise measures to exact locations, such as remote or steep landscapes.
The company has one drone capable of carrying a 30-kilogram load.
“Weed control would be one of the obvious uses, particularly when you’re around sensitive waterways and things like that,” Mr Findlay said.
“The technology is here now, it’s in that cost base where people can afford to do it and I think it’s time we take that on and give it a go,” Mr Davison said.
New technology a ‘game changer’
Near Mansfield in Victoria, it’s lambing season.
Sheep producers there are being besieged by wild dog attacks.
Peter Griffin had lost 20 young ewes and had just as many badly mauled.
When he heard the drone pilots were in the district, he gave them the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the technology.
That night, standing in a paddock littered with dead sheep, he and other producers watched the drone’s camera broadcast to a giant television screen attached to a trailer.
As Mr Storen manoeuvred the drone over the property, the thermal imaging picked up kangaroos, wombats and a fox — but not the wild dog that had caused the carnage.
Still, farmers are impressed.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble with wild dogs; I’ve looked at anything and everything. This is very target-specific,” said sheep producer Brendan Mahony.
The drone pilots believe this technology will also have enormous benefits for species conservation; for example, being able to detect a feral cat in a bilby colony.
They’re not missing their former lives, especially the jet lag of international travel after 30 hours in the cockpit.
“We’ve come out the other side,” Mr Durand said.
“We’re outdoors, doing what we love. I can’t think of a better way to do it than with my best mates.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iview.