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Aerial imaging opportunities

A crop farmer, a wife who specialises in business administration and a son with a passion for flying have capitalised on their skills to create and run a business in aerial imaging using drones.

The seed of an idea was planted when Nick Archdale, a farm production manager at LeaderBrand Produce Ltd, wanted to use a drone for surveying his crops with a view to saving time out in the field.

“The idea turned into a business opportunity which was presented to our son William, who has a passion for anything that flies, and Dragonfly is the result of that,” said Dragonfly Aerial Imaging business manager Nikki Archdale.

The Archdales are originally from Cornwall, England and spent many years abroad before relocating to Gisborne seven years ago. The family of six lived for eight years in Portugal where Nick worked for Vitacress Portugal, a subsidiary of a UK company, supplying baby leaf salads to the UK and Iberian markets. Nikki was owner/operator of an import/distribution company and café, The Cornish Range.

They then spent several years in Australia and Florida, USA before Gisborne came on the radar.

“I think we have saved the best location to last, though Cornwall and Portugal still call us back,” she said.

Agriculture is their biggest and preferred market but the work Dragonfly does is varied, from providing clients with aerial shots of their section for a garden landscaping project to providing valuable photographic evidence for a court case. The company has been involved in some large local projects, such as the log yard redevelopment project for Fulton Hogan where they provided images regularly for their monthly progress reports.

Over the past 18 months Dragonfly has also picked up work subcontracting to local businesses, offering supporting roles in administration and data processing/CAD work to local civil engineering companies, where they work together on multiple projects.

“This service has helped to support the business through quieter periods and when adverse weather conditions prevent us from flying.”

Nick works full time, specialising in baby leaf production, and farming runs through his veins. He has the ability to act as an agricultural consultant if required.

Nikki said they often get growers who come to them wanting images of their crops when they think they have a problem.

“So they contract us to come in and survey an area, produce the multispectral images and confirm what they already know. Ideally we want farmers and growers to give us the opportunity to survey their crops from a bare paddock right through to harvest, conducting regular surveys in between to monitor the crop — this is where we will see the real benefits.”

With a strong business background, Nikki brings both experience and innovation. When she is not busy with Dragonfly you will find her managing her countless other projects (executive board member for the Gisborne/Tairawhiti Chamber of Commerce, member of and regional director for BNI and active fundraiser for Hospice Tairawhiti).

“Our son has now moved away from Gisborne so Thomas, who was previously our spotter, has stepped into William's role as operator and I have stepped into Thomas' role as spotter.”

Thomas Omundsen's role within Dragonfly is everything relating to flight operations and data processing. The CAD and computer guru, Thomas is a master of computers and a variety of IT software. Nikki describes him as a predominantly self-taught problem-solver with the patience of a saint.

“Thomas is a perfect example of young talent finding a niche role in an area that he is passionate about, so he can remain driven and more importantly do so within a regional team, rather than heading off to the big smoke.”

The actual flying of the drone makes up a very small percentage of what they do, with the majority of the work being once they have captured the images/data. A lot of time is spent processing that data and doing any calculations required.

“Flight compliance paperwork and equipment maintenance also take up a considerable amount of our time and energy.”

As one of only two listed CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) Rule Part 102-certificated drone operators in Gisborne, Nikki believes Dragonfly is helping to set industry standards. Its public liability insurance is specific to aviation activities.

“One of our biggest challenges here in Gisborne is risk of bird attack, in particular the seagulls. We have had to abort flights and reschedule because of them.

“Wind is often another issue which is frustrating — when we have a good weather forecast, drive out an hour or more to a location, spend another hour climbing a hill to get in position only to find that the wind is howling through the valley we need to fly over, and head back to HQ with nothing.”

Dragonfly has had a slow but consistent growth and has just celebrated its third birthday. with the biggest change being staff roles. Its clients include Gisborne District Council, AgResearch, Civil Assist, Survey Gisborne, LeaderBrand, Riversun and Fulton Hogan.

“The biggest feather in our cap so far has been picking up the job for AgResearch. Last year we started working on a hill country farm monitoring and mapping the weeds — variegated thistles, Californian thistles, rushes and blackberries. AgResearch recently jointly hosted a field day out at Tangihanga Station called “Taking the sting out of thistles”, as well as detailing the trials they were working on. Dragonfly got a mention for the significant contribution we had made to the project.

“The mapping is intended to underpin the assumptions about the areas infested, in order to drive the business case for intervention. Using the data provided, only two flyovers with the helicopter were required to successfully target the weeds with spot sprays.

“As well as saving money, this is also much better for the environment.”

The goal for Dragonfly is to be the preferred partner for governmental, commerce and agricultural industry sectors for drone services and integrated solutions.

They are also looking to expand into the Hawke's Bay region, with a view to surveying vineyards and orchards there.

“We are hoping to work on blossom count trials to help predict harvest yields and we would welcome any businesses that may be keen to work with us on this.”

They have another couple of ideas in mind for further development but are keeping these under their hat for now. Watch this space.

What the business does:

Aerial Surveying and Mapping

Multi-spectral and RGB imagery, plant health monitoring, disease and pest identification.

What might normally take six to eight hours of crop-walking can be done within an hour or two using a drone, meaning that the grower can then focus on assessing the problem by “ground truthing” the area identified in the aerial images. In addition, using multi-spectral imaging we can detect stress/disease in crops up to three weeks earlier than can be seen with the naked eye. Early detection means farmers/growers can deal with issues in a more timely manner and focus just on the affected areas. Weed mapping on hill country farms has proven valuable and allows for precision spraying of affected areas, saving our clients time and money. We are currently putting a lot of our time and energy into this area.

Orthomosaics, 3D modelling, topography, volumetric surveying

We undertake this type of work for hill country farms, construction projects and quarries.

We undertake asset inspections in forestry environments. Compliance in forestry is another growth area for us, in particular in monitoring slash.

Assessing sites for safety is another area drones can be a useful piece of equipment. Drones are a safer, faster way to plan earthwork, design buildings, and account for any new variables that may affect the construction process. They also provide accurate, on-demand access to the data needed to ensure that worker safety isn't compromised by last-minute changes or unexpected surprises.

MAPPING FROM THE AIR: Dragonfly Aerial Imaging RPAS (remotely-piloted aircraft system) flight operator and data processor Thomas Omundsen (left) is pictured with a DJI Matrice 210 drone, and business manager Nikki Archdale with the handset for the Matrice. The DJI Matrice is designed to handle inclement weather like rain and wind and has an upward gimbal connector, allowing a camera to ride piggyback — which gives the option of capturing images looking up as well as down; perfect for bridge inspections. Nikki also holds an iPad which contains an app designed by ThinkSafe in Gisborne that has a compliance check list she goes through on each job. Picture by Paul Rickard