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Capturing the crop: Meet the fast-paced farmer and his home-made drone

By Amelia Bernasconi, Tuesday June 2, 2020 - 06:42 EST

At speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour, Heath Whibley darts around farm machinery and sprints across paddocks in effortless style.

The 20-year-old drone pilot has no boundaries on the family farm at Crooble in northern New South Wales, which he has moved back to after his agribusiness degree was forced to go online amid COVID-19 restrictions.

"Everyone comments 'wow, you're so lucky to have that, to walk out your door and just be able to fly' and yeah, it is pretty lucky," Mr Whibley said.

His family felt pretty lucky too, after receiving more than double the 2019 rainfall already this year.

It was the first time in years that the Whibleys were able to plant their entire 1,800-hectare property, and Heath did not want to miss the opportunity to capture the action from the sky.

"Dad hopped on the tractor and I followed him with the drone and went around and through the gear, and everyone got a bit scared," he laughed.

"As I was flying around the machinery, I decided to go through the bar on the planter and it is the tightest space!

"I hit the side and was like, 'oops, better go through again', but I did it in a couple of tries."

All the while, his dad Garry was in the driver's seat.

"It doesn't affect progress, but you see a drone tearing towards you at 100-plus-kms an hour, even though you're in the cab, you duck!" Garry said.

"He turns at the last minute, of course.

"But you look around and he's flying through your machine and doing all sorts of crazy stunts and that's very entertaining."

The tricks and stunning views captured by the home-made drone soon made their way online, to a growing Facebook page 'Planting the crop 2020'.

"I shared a video on it of what's happening at our place, we were just putting in the last run of chickpeas and I was like 'may as well put a video in there' and it blew up pretty well, everyone seemed to like it," Mr Whibley said.

Five years finessing his skills

Garry had just one worry as Heath careered around the farm machinery.

"If he does have a prang and go down, well you know it's going to get run over," he said.

The hobby started at age 15, and Heath said there was nothing else like flying drones, especially at speed.

The sport could now even lead to a career, with Mr Whibley named the Freestyle Champion at the Australian Drone Nationals in 2019.

There are not many other speed racing drone pilots in north-western NSW, and Mr Whibley said his city competitors were very jealous of his practice pad.

"I've been flying FPV drones for about five years now, so I've had a fair bit of experience, but there's been lots of crashes, I can tell you that," he said.

"Lots of practice has gone into it."

Built from the ground up

Fortunately, Mr Whibley has also become quite handy in the workshop.

"There's a whole tuning side to it, some people say it's like a guitar — but it's 10 times harder than that," he said.

"There are different [parts] you can choose and everything, so there's a fair bit of soldering and programming.

"You have to connect it to the computer then fly it, then test it, then fly it, then test it to see what works for you, so there's a whole art to that as well.

"I do watch a fair few other people's videos to get ideas to see what they're doing and see what I can make better out of it."

And now Heath is trying to teach his dad.

"I get it up in the air and then I give it back because I've just got no eye-finger coordination," Garry said.

"It just worries me I'm going to crash it — and I know how much they cost."


© ABC 2020

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