Helicopter drone used to drop self-destructing predatory bugs on strawberry crops

Helicopter drone used to drop self-destructing predatory bugs on strawberry crops

Helicopter drone used to drop self-destructing predatory bugs on strawberry crops

Updated 20 September 2016, 10:00 AEST

A helicopter-style drone is being used in the war against mites that suck the goodness out of growing crops.

Aerobugs, a business run by former strawberry grower Nathan Roy, has taken off after Mr Roy invented and patented a system to air drop predatory mites into the fields.

The predatory mites attack the chemically resistant two-spotted mites, which can decimate strawberry crops, before self-destructing.

"For 25 years I grew strawberries with my family, and two years ago we decided we couldn't expand any further with our farm, so we decided to hop out of strawberries," Mr Roy said.

"My brother has gone into turf and I've gone into spreading beneficial insects by drone.

"You always have to have fun while you work, and I think this is possibly the best work I've done in my life."

Mr Roy sources the predatory mites from the Bugs for Bugs insectary at Donnybrook, north of Brisbane.

He then sets the drone up and mixes the insects, pours them into a spreader system he has made, then takes off and spreads them all over the fields.

"We can get across a nice square block in about seven to 12 minutes, depending on what we're releasing," Mr Roy said.

"The closer we have to spread the bugs, the longer it takes."

Mr Roy works closely with Paul Jones from Bugs for Bugs, the company that breeds the predatory mites.

"The logistics of getting these bugs out, particularly in large areas can be quite difficult," Mr Jones said.

"Usually a grower would employ workers to put them out by hand, and it can be quite challenging instructing people how to do it.

"Sometimes they might leave the product out in the sun and kill the poor little critters.

"It's not like a chemical where you mix it in a tank and you spray it out in the field.

"We've been using the drone for the last two years, and in the last 12 months it's really been taken up commercially — the results have been excellent."

Mr Roy said the cost of using the drone was comparative to other methods.

"Good predator establishment in the fields has been a positive outcome from this year's trials," he said.

"We might be a little bit dearer, but instead of sporadic spotting over the strawberry field, we're covering every square metre of the field, so we're getting a much more even spread."

Mr Roy said he had driven about 150,000 kilometres in the past 18 months as business had boomed.

"I've done half the winter crop for Queensland's strawberry industry, probably half of Queensland's summer strawberry crop up in Stanthorpe, and quite a few of the strawberry growers in Adelaide," he said.

"We've also ventured off into tomatoes in the Gatton area, and then we've done trials in other types of industries like bananas, watermelons and pumpkins."

Mr Roy has big plans for expansion.

"I'm hoping to have a lot of crafts established all over Australia, so I can have people trained up to fly the drones for the farms, or I'll just fly in to do them myself," he said.

"I'm also in contact with places in America and Europe by phone, email and Skype, trying to organise times to fly over and do farm demonstrations.

"America has a huge strawberry industry and they still spread predatory bugs [using] people."

The drones are not cheap, costing about $27,000 for a full set-up including batteries, chargers and licensing, but Mr Roy said the rewards were great.

"Coming from a farming background, I understand what it's like to be under those stresses, so I've made something that I can go out and help farmers trying to streamline their businesses," he said.