The Rural Drone Academy

Like every project I undertake, the Rural Drone Academy was created to solve an unaddressed problem. Spotting gaps then addressing them has been the hallmark of my rural advocacy business over several decades.

The problem that the Rural Drone Academy tackles? There’s several:

1.  Drones have become men’s business and this has long-term implications for Australian agriculture:

Only 1-2% of Australia’s drone pilots are women. And of them, only a tiny percentage are fully licenced – that is, they have a Remote Pilot Licence (RePL) and a Remote Operator’s Certificate (ReOC), issued by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). Drones are becoming firmly cemented in popular culture – in Australia and elsewhere – as ‘boy’s toys’.

Why does this matter?

  • Drones are the first step many now take on the way into the rest of ag tech.  Many are people who otherwise would not have considered having anything to do with ag tech.
  • Ag tech is what will enable Australian farmers to adapt to future business and environmental pressures – to be more productive, more sustainable, remain competitive on the global market and improve financial viability.
  • There are questions that most men ask me about drones and there are typical questions that women ask me. These questions are poles apart. This vast chasm of difference illustrates the stark difference in the way the average man and the average woman thinks. Numerous studies have shown that the most productive, profitable and adaptable businesses include a diversity of people in decision making roles.  This is not about women being better than men or vice versa.  It’s simply that a more diverse range of views is good for business (apart from being more equitable).
  • From what I see via my Twitter account – @Agri_Events – globally, right now, more than 90-95%% of people involved in ag tech are men. Some people may argue ‘girls just aren’t interested’ – but global studies point to big differences between STEM (science, technology, maths & engineering) engagement between countries, suggesting that there’s strong cultural influences at work.
  • In recognition of the fact that there are dwindling numbers of women undertaking careers in STEM and that drones are now the first rung on the ladder, several projects around the world have started up that use drones to help address the extreme inbalance.
  • But there is no agriculture or rural-focused equivalent, anywhere in the world.
  • In regard to children, it’s especially important to introduce those with a rural upbringing to what ag drones can do, because they’re the most likely to return to the bush to work. (Expansion of the training of doctors raised in rural and regional areas, such as at Townsville’s JCU, is having excellent results re boosting the number of regional GPs.) What better way to expose rural children to the world of drones than by helping their mothers become drone operator role models.  And not just role models for daughters – for sons as well.

Introduction to drones in agriculture & drone flight demonstrations at ag industry events (AgForce day in Charleville, south west Qld.)

2.  Aviation safety & potential implementation of licencing requirements for farm drones:

There are a significant number of people ignoring CASA drone laws across Australia – including on farms and cattle stations. Am I letting the cat out of the bag by bringing this up publicly? CASA would already be well aware of it as there’s examples all over social media. If this flouting of safety regulations does not abate, then CASA will undoubtedly reintroduce more stringent regulation of drones used on farms and cattle stations. As full licencing/certification in Australia costs a drone operator $4-$5,000 in total, takes at least a week of study and isn’t easy to pass – plus there’s ongoing documentation and fees – this isn’t something farmers and station residents will want imposed on them. And if there is a major drone-related incident in a rural area (eg a collision with a crop duster), there will be considerable public pressure on CASA to ensure no reoccurrence. To avoid the imposition of red tape, it is smart for rural Australia to proactively spread the word regarding best-practice drone operation and safety laws, and help foster a culture of adherence. As women are usually the unnofficial ‘workplace health & safety officers’ on farms, and often the person tasked with researching drones to purchase for others and most often supervising children, it makes sense to run programmes designed especially for them.

3.  Underutilisation of rural women:

Decades ago, partnered women on farms and cattle stations were less likely to be seeking their own paid work and own income. This has changed. Many rural women have a higher standard of tertiary education than their partners and many want a paid job of their own. The paucity of paid employment options in rural areas is a distinct disincentive for women to move away from close proximity to larger towns and cities with more plentiful job options. Women want jobs which use their skills and give them financial independence. (The medical profession has identified the same issue, when trying to attract GPs to regional & remote areas, as most are male & married.)

  • Roads in some regions have improved and the internet has helped provide some self-employment – but paid work options remain sparse and regular travel to a job in town is not tax deductible and it eats up net profit.  Especially in areas where roo populations make vehicle damage inevitable.
  • Childcare options remain limited in the bush and partners are usually working very long hours well away from the homestead.
  • At present, ag drone businesses are being set up in rural areas by opportunists with no interest or experience in agriculture.
  • How much better would it be for local rural women to start up drone businesses, serving their surrounding region.  Multiple benefits: increase household income, flexible work hours and often from home, help to raise farm/industry productivity and safety, increase self-confidence and leadership skills, mentor others and be great role models in a new field of endeavour.  Increase independence, create long-term small businesses and potentially employ others.
  • By getting a foot on the ladder now, rural drone-related businesses can start part-time with a relatively small amount of capital, and expand and evolve with the fledgling drone industry.

Drone flight demonstrations at rural women’s events (Kooroorinya Ladies Day, North Queensland. Drone photograph.)

The project title. Why ‘academy’?

The title was chosen to make it clear this project is not just flight training; it’s information interwoven with personal examples – aimed at fostering high quality, ethical standards of drone and small business operation in rural & regional Australia.  I don’t just talk about drones in isolation.  This is a holistic project that will utilise every skill I have learned over the last 30 years running my own niche business.  It is designed to provide a solid foundation for rural women to build on – whether they choose to use the knowledge on their own farm or set up a business providing a drone-related service for others and pursue specialist knowledge such as drone mapping, analytics and treatment

In longer workshops run for people who’d like to start a drone-related business (rather than just fly a drone over their own property), I can cover every topic they need to know. For example:

  • Choosing a good business name & registering it, setting up a website and effective website SEO (search engine optimisation)
  • Rural business marketing tips, including efficient & effective use of social media
  • Finding good drone insurance policies, calculating charges – including travel
  • What is involved in obtaining a RePL & ReOC – for whom is it worthwhile; pros & cons
  • How to build a personal ag drone network and continue learning via global research, attending events, and teaching others.
  • How to run a business that survives changes and challenges over years

This is a project aimed at women & girls. Why not ‘Rural Women’s Drone Academy’?

  • Because while the focus is on women and girls, to address the extreme inbalance, men also welcome.

What drone training currently exists?

  • There are already a number of city-based organisations that provide drone licencing training. A full licence (Remote Pilot Licence [RePL] & Remote Operator’s Certificate [ReOC] costs $4,000 – $5,000, takes a week of study and the ReOC, particularly, isn’t easy to pass.  So it’s only undertaken by relatively few people – mostly drone operators running a business and flying flying >2kg machines.
  • There are several new businesses that offer basic flight training, however few if any are in rural regions, none are ag-focussed, or offering any advice on running a drone business (as participants are potential competitors).
  • There are already businesses and producer organisations running information sessions on using sensors on drones – mapping and then analysing data.  There’s also an increasing amount of useful information online – from farmers, farming organisations and ag drone analysis software companies.

One-on-one drone introductions (Fiona Lake standing with Adria Downs Station cook, Rhonda Heslin, in far south western Qld. Drone photograph.)

So what makes the Rural Drone Academy different?

It’s a unique trifecta – a combination of:

  1. Sound drone instruction
  2. Across a variety of agricultural fields
  3. Small business management advice

And from someone with personal stories based on many years of hands-on experience across a wide area.

More details on what makes the Rural Drone Academy unique:

  • Training taken to rural & remote area residents; not rushed and not based on gimmicks that won’t end up being used.
  • A presenter with a broad range of hands-on ag experience – from northern Australian cattle stations to southern Australian farms
  • Not just the variety of feasible uses  for drones – also a dose of reality regarding their limitations, and an honest discussion regarding other options. (Often vested interests promote the view that drones are the be-all and end-all; which has unfortunately led to some disillusionment amongst farmers who purchased, expecting a panacea.)
  • Discussion on other ag tech – such as ground robots to spray weeds, satellite services, remote water monitoring & automated weigh & draft systems, virtual fencing and other options that for some purposes are quicker, cheaper and/or safer than drones.
  • Comprehensive tips on small business management, based on experience, as outlined above
  • If requested, information on best-practice aerial photography, re promoting ag industries and rural areas (award-winning professional photographer with 30 years of aerial photography experience)
  • All are welcome – however the emphasis of the Rural Drone Academy is on assisting women and girls and the focus is on benefits for regional/rural areas
  • Age range – from primary school upwards (with an ag/rural focus) – there is no upper age limit.
  • Where facilities, time and flight zone restrictions allow, hands-on experience in a comfortable and supportive environment
  • The Rural Drone Academy aims to fill the gap between knowing nothing at all about drones and spending thousands on getting licenced, and reach a sector of the community who are not being served at present.

Designed to comprehensively inform – build confidence – inspire – and make action easy.

Who will the Rural Drone Academy be ideal for?

  • Anyone who has been considering buying a drone for their farm or cattle station
  • Anyone who has bought a drone for their partner or children, who wants to learn about best practice management, plus vital information on safety and aviation laws.
  • Self-taught drone pilots – this training is guaranteed to fill in useful gaps.  And lay the groundwork for obtaining CASA registration, if that’s what is being considered.
  • Rural residents looking to take up a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an emerging industry and create a small business


Fiona Lake – taking photographs in North Queensland with DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro drone

How long are the presentations & what is included in each option?

  • 1 hour keynote presentations & ‘introduction to drones in agriculture’ workshops; in conjunction with pre-existing events – run by ag industry organisations and businesses, rural women’s groups and other community organisations. Plus presentations at some rural schools and regional councils.  Introductory sessions are designed to inform, sort fact from fiction, inspire and lead to action – and attendance at longer, more detailed workshops – or thorough independent research.

Longer workshops enable the addition of advanced specialist-knowledge segments presented by other experts, depending on the needs of each group of workshop attendees. These expert presenters include researchers working for farming organisations, universities and scientific bodies, plus independent agronomists. A number are already presenting at ag-tech events in high-value cropping regions. These specialist sessions would not be of relevance to everyone as they would cover precise topics such as using spray drones, multispectral sensors used to manage a particular type of crop or soil issue, and how to use certain software for analysis. Plus alternatives to drones – topics of a more general interest – using satellite imagery, ground robots and other ag tech such as virtual fencing, sensors and telemetry. The ag tech industry is evolving at an exponential rate and there are increasing numbers of experts in these very precise fields, so it is sensible to engage their services when relevant, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel.

  • Half-day workshops that include a hands-on session, where feasible.
  • Full day sessions for participants wanting more comprehensive information on drones in agriculture & rural Australia as well as hands-on experience. Depending on the group, this may include a specialist session or two presented by an ag tech expert as outlined above; or aerial photography and how to set up a regional ag drone business.
  • Potential for 2-day drone camps in remote areas in class G airspace; numbers permitting.  This would take participants from just starting out to having the knowledge and confidence to commence setting up a drone business.

Project timing:

  • Last year would have been too early, with insufficient numbers prepared to put new knowledge into action.
  • Next year the rural drone business environment will be more crowded and existing drone businesses will be more established.
  • The perfect time for this project is right now, when rural residents are starting to buy drones, encountering stumbling blocks and actively seeking reliable and comprehensive information.


Looking forward:

To investigate demand and find out what rural residents wanted to know about drones, I started running some ‘introduction to drones’ presentations last year. The first of these was a keynote address at the ‘Managing Risks – Securing the Future’ forum run by Agforce, QFF & the Northern Gulf Resource Management Group in Malanda, Far North Queensland.

I’ve already laid a solid foundation of research, run several drone presentations to test the water, built a global drone network, and invested heavily in self education (in Australia & the US). To be able to get some traction snowballing and make a notable difference to agricultural industries, rural communities and women, it is essential to get others on board.  Hence my AgriFutures project application, which unfortunately was unsuccessful.

Fiona Lake, night flight drone training with Sundance Media in Las Vegas, USA

Drone information blog posts

  • I’ve written a number of posts containing information I wish I could have found at the outset. The drone topics below are either not covered by anyone else at all, incompletely or inaccurately.
  • All the information in these posts is included in Rural Drone Academy training, to some degree, but with the addition of many other useful topics, entertaining examples, participant Q & A’s and networking.
  1. Rural Drone Academy workshops & training – want to lift your flying up to another level, solve some drone issues, or you need a hand to gets started? These workshops are useful for all skill levels, ages and backgrounds.
  2. Next workshops plus previous events – upcoming events you can attend. Previous events are also listed, which will give you an idea of the regions covered, themes and the diversity organisations hosting them.
  3. Comments from participants – forthright opinions from people who have attended drone sessions held in four states.
  4. The principles of drone safety & laws – essential reading for every drone pilot. Accompanied by impressive ‘fail’ stories, during Rural Drone Academy training.
  5. How to set up a drone business – how to steam ahead – use time, energy & money to maximum effect – and avoid pitfalls. Included in drone workshops in detail, if applicable to participant interests.
  6. What is the best drone to buy for a beginner?  Objective information to help you decide. The internet is full of drones that have hardly been flown because they didn’t suit the buyer’s purpose. Don’t join them!
  7. What is the best drone to buy? Comprehensive information on the most common consumer models to help drone pilots upgrading or seeking a drone for a specific task.
  8. Is a Crystal Sky screen worth buying?  The pros and cons compared to using phones and tablets as screens, from an objective point of view.

If you are interested in attending Rural Drone Academy training don’t hesitate to contact me by email or ring the business-hours phone number listed below.

PLEASE NOTE: As applies to the rest of this website – the content on this page is protected by copyright.  This post was originally written in 2018.

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