This particular drone uses a specialized camera developed for agricultural use, such as crop health management and soil nutrient testing. (Courtesy Draganfly Innovations Inc.)

This particular drone uses a specialized camera developed for agricultural use, such as crop health management and soil nutrient testing. (Courtesy Draganfly Innovations Inc.)

Robots have not made a deep penetration into tree fruit and vineyard operations. There have been some efforts to develop robotic pruners and to perfect a mechanical hand that can pick fruit.

But how about flying robots?

There’s more excitement about those. They’re called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), avoiding the military image associated with the name drones.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are many manufacturers of UAVs, which come in two kinds. Some are small fixed wing aircraft, but most are small helicopters with from three to six rotors. They vary in size upwards from a few pounds. Big ones could carry sprayers; small ones commonly carry cameras as their main tool; only the military versions carry missiles or guns.

The military drones are really big and really expensive, costing around $30 million each, flying up to 60,000 feet altitude, staying aloft 32 hours. But you can buy a small one, right now, that will fly 25 minutes on battery power and cost under $1,500. And it carries a great camera.

It could take pictures in your orchard and send them to you, nearly a half mile away, using the same kind of WiFi system that hooks you up to the Internet while you’re in the coffee shop.

Ordinary people rarely hear about UAVs except in their military guise or when a company like Amazon makes news by revealing a plan for doorstep delivery of packages using small, unmanned helicopters.

But, behinds the scenes, there are dozens of manufacturers ready to pounce on what could be a huge market once the Federal Aviation Administration opens up the sky for them. The FAA has been ordered, by Congress, to propose a set of rules by September of 2015. The rules must “integrate” these devices into air space now divided into commercial airline, general aviation, and military uses.

Right now, UAVs can’t be used for commercial purposes (except by you, yourself, on your own land). UAVs are treated like hobbyists’ model airplanes, restricted to 400 feet altitude.

Regulation needed

Researchers from at least four universities are studying agricultural applications. Ken Giles at the University of California-Davis is working with a fixed wing model in grape vineyard applications, the only fruit-related effort under way. Washington State University is studying the use of UAVs for chasing away birds.

To many farmers, a call for government regulation may seem like asking for trouble. But that’s what the UAV industry is doing. It’s seeking to be integrated into the airspace.

The industry is organized in a 42-year-old group called the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, located in Arlington, Virginia. In a letter last April to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, AUVSI president Michael Toscano spoke on behalf of nearly 40 organizations—many of them in row crop agriculture. Signers included air traffic controllers, the American Society of Agronomy, and associations representing soybeans, wheat, barley, and canola.

“The safety of our skies and fellow citizens is our top priority. That is why we support regulations to govern the technology,” Toscano wrote. “The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs and others either sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines.”

The potential benefits for UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) should not be underestimated, he said. “Whether it is helping farmers improve crop yields, assisting first responders with search and rescue missions, or advancing
scientific research, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and, most importantly, saving lives.”

In an economic impact study, the organization estimated that this new industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact during the first decade following integration into the airspace.
“But with each passing day that commercial integration is delayed, the United States continues to fall behind,” the letter said.

Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager for AUVSI, said that other countries that have less restrictive airspace regulations are moving ahead rapidly. By one estimate, 40 percent of the rice grown in Japan is sprayed with some 2,300 unmanned helicopter-type vehicles, which have effectively replaced pilots and “cropdusters.” The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture began promoting the concept nearly 25 years ago.

Canadian police have used UAVs to find lost people; Australia uses them to monitor beaches for sharks. New Zealand sheep ranchers use them to locate sheep and evaluate grazing conditions.

If UAVs gain use in the United States, about 80 percent of the applications will likely be in agriculture and most of the rest in public safety—monitoring traffic or searching for lost people, Hinton said. The University of Alaska is studying their use in patrolling oil pipelines looking for leaks.

This past summer, UAVs were used in Washington State to pinpoint the location and size of wildfires to help deploy fire suppression efforts.

In approaching FAA, the industry has asked for the integration of UAVs weighing 55 pounds or less and flying under 400 feet, the area where hobbyists now operate but where services in which there are monetary transactions can’t be performed.

Fruit applications

Hinton said that unmanned aircraft can help people cope with the four Ds—the dull, the dirty, the dangerous, and the difficult. Imagine the safety gains in taking pilots out of cropdusters working over potato fields, which is the subject of a research project at Oregon State University.

Bruce Prenguber, an independent agricultural economics consultant at Globalwise in Vancouver, Washington, said that “many people are speaking highly of the technology as the new big tool in agriculture.”

Applications in tree fruits and grapes might include scouting orchards—looking for outbreaks of insects or diseases, scaring off birds attacking fruit, locating wildlife damaging trees or posing a food safety threat, monitoring irrigation equipment, and doing early estimates of fruit  yields. They could be used for precision spraying of small areas or for spreading pollen during bloom.

“Flight and photography are not really difficult,” Prenguber said. “The key will be interpreting the data so it turns into actionable information.” Work is under way to use cameras and near-infrared reflectance technology to detect and interpret color changes that occur when foliage is stressed or damaged.

Prenguber says it’ll probably be companies and consultants, rather than farmers themselves, who develop the systems and programs that will be used in orchards and vineyards. Like apps for smartphones, programs will be developed, but they will need to be quite sophisticated. “Ultimately,” he said, “data systems will be established to record data for each individual tree and metered space of trees grown in high-density hedgerows.”

One of the exciting things about UAVs is that they can be programmed to fly in patterns, and they can fly the same pattern repeatedly. They can do things like the row crops people are doing with precision agriculture, putting the right kind and amount of fertilizer in an area based on yield potential or crop load, for example.
With the right interpretation of data, fruit crop size could be measured repeatedly from bloom on and the information used to schedule bins and pickers in the right amount to various orchard blocks and estimate crop value based on supply and condition.
The fixed-wing aircraft UAVs fly faster, but the helicopters are more capable of getting close and homing in. A good camera could focus on a single apple or a single insect monitoring trap, and a good wireless transmitter could send a closeup picture to a computer screen in the office.
There’s an old saying, what you don’t have in your head, you have to have in your heels. If Amazon can deliver a package to a doorstep, maybe a spouse can send that lunch you forgot right to the orchard? And that wrench you need? No problem.
Prenguber noted that fruit growers are early adopters of new technology. It probably won’t be long before there’s a drone in your orchard. •

Hermann Thoennissen, president of HTG International, will speak about incorporating UAVs and drones into farm operations during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Kennewick on December 1.