Larry Burrow University of California demonstrates a drone flight during  the Western Plant Health Association39s Summer Regulatory Conference in Sacramento Calif

Larry Burrow, University of California, demonstrates a drone flight during the Western Plant Health Association's Summer Regulatory Conference in Sacramento, Calif.

Drones could change how we cultivate, grow food

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, and their integration with other technologies and management tools are stimulating a new agricultural revolution with opportunities not only for farmers and others involved with agricultural production, but educators, food processors, markets, and consumers.

Aerial drones have been getting a bum rap as of late.

It seems some irresponsible ground pilots have been flying them too close to airports and scaring the daylights out of flight crews and passengers.

Security guards in Washington, DC witnessed an errant drone land on the White House lawn. Now there’s talk of these pesky devices one day being utilized to deliver terrorists’ bombs throughout major cities in the U.S.

Be that as it may, these new devices made popular – or infamous – as military weapons are gaining recognition as possible helpful tools in delivering packages and merchandize, books, or even pizza to your front door within minutes.

But stop for a minute and think about the possible benefits to agriculture these hovering contraptions might hold for food production in our country.

Some possibilities may seem almost comical – tractors with no drivers, the air above farm fields abuzz with little drones closely monitoring the health of individual animals and plants, or even super tiny bee drones pollinating crops.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and their integration with other technologies and management tools are stimulating a new agricultural revolution with opportunities not only for farmers and others involved with agricultural production, but educators, food processors, markets, and consumers.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that represents producers and users of drones and other robotic equipment, predicts that 80 percent of the commercial market for drones will eventually be for agricultural uses.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establishes guidelines for commercial use, the drone industry expects more than 100,000 jobs to be created and nearly half a billion in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025 - much of it from agriculture.

Iowa, the country’s largest corn and soybean grower, could see 1,200 jobs and an economic impact topping $950 million over the next decade.

Drones a hot topic

Drones have become such a hot topic that the Western Plant Health Association in Sacramento presented a discussion and demonstration segment titled “Agriculture: Technology Driven Change – The New Waves” during its Summer Regulatory Conference last month.

Larry Burrow, University of California Cooperative Extension, gave a talk on drones, how they are built and operate, some of the possible applications that can benefit agriculture, and afterward gave a demonstration in the rear service area of the DoubleTree Hotel in Sacramento.

Burrow is currently working as a collaborator of a five-year grant from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources to evaluate and extend the use of UAVs as crop monitoring tools.

Drones – which can be bought for $700 up to $20,000 and beyond – are equipped with infrared cameras, sensors, and other technology controlled by a pilot on the ground. The hovering aircraft can collect data that identifies insect problems, water issues, assesses crop yields, and even tracks down cattle that have wandered off.

Growers can use UAVs to tailor the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and other applications based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field – a process known as precision agriculture.

This can save the grower money from unnecessarily overusing resources while at the same time reducing the amount of runoff that could flow into nearby rivers and streams.

Furthermore, the aircraft can assist farmers to help with better planting and crop rotation strategies, and provide a higher degree of all-around knowledge of how crops progress day-to-day in different parts of a field.

“The business is showing a rapid, steady, and significant interest from all around the world, not just in California,” said Ashutosh Natraj, co-founder of Vine Rangers in Santa Ynez, Calif.

His company is a precision agriculture startup using drones and ground robots to gather data on vineyard crops. His business is operating on a Section 333 exemption from the FAA which allows companies to test business models and technologies for the first time – and ideally make a profit in the process.”

Agricultural tool

Natraj is very excited about the prospects of using drones to aid agricultural production, noting that Vine Rangers is now conducting pilot projects in France and Switzerland. Talks are underway in the United Kingdom.

“Drones can benefit farmers in multiple ways,” Natraj said. “If a farmer wants to learn more about his crops this is a good way to do it.”

He continued, “Currently the farmer sets up a pattern in his farm to check the health of the crop, during which farmers skip deeper sections of the farm and these sections get mostly neglected due to random sampling and lack of access to such sections; whereas, the drones have the ability to fly and have easy access to all these sections.”

“Another big advantage is that drones fly much lower in altitude thus even if it is a cloudy day, the farmers can still get the useful data from the drones, unlike the expensive satellite images which become useless for the farmers on cloudy days as the satellites simply wouldn’t collect the sufficient data required by the farmers,” Natraj said.

In a nutshell, Natraj cites three bullet points in favor of drone usage: improving crop yield; help reduce expenditures on human labor to simply walk and monitor crop health; and help drop the cost on irrigation-related activities.

Now the farmer will know where, when, and how much irrigation is actually required.

“The same holds true for manures, fertilizers, and insecticides that get applied by spraying. It’s a win-win situation,” he adds.

Natraj pointed out that currently strict regulations make the use of UAVs expensive.

“Once larger payload capacity is verified with permits to fly within the airspace of the farmers’ land then the operational costs of the drones will fall and the entire technology will become drop-dead cheap for farmers to use.”

For the latest on western agriculture, please check out Western Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.

Startups including Vine Rangers are honing their drone technologies on specialty crops for now, but eventually will move into large-scale farms, which are bigger and require more resources to cover.

It is easy to see that this new technology will impact both small and international companies, though how the process unfolds is yet to be determined but will be exciting to watch.

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