Good Fruit Grower

November 2016

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18 NOVEMBER 2016 GOOD FRUIT GROWER Even with recent advancements, drones are not quite ready for optimal use in the tree fruit industry. by Ross Courtney L istening to drone manufactur- ers, researchers and enthusi- asts, you would think they are revolutionizing agriculture tomorrow. "This is like Kittyhawk," Jeff Lorton of Oregon UAS Future Farm announced to a giddy crowd watching demonstrations of unmanned aircraft at a recent confer- ence he staged. Sort of. Listen closely. Those insiders still use phrases like "what if" or "envi- sion" or "potential." In spite of rapid advancements, drones still aren't quite there for wide- spread use in tree fruit and wine grapes. They have shown promise with drying cher- ries and chasing away birds, for example. And in theory, researchers can now from the air detect the difference between healthy and not- so-healthy trees using drone imagery. But sensors still have yet to accurately and consistently measure tree health over wide areas, anticipate yields or identify pest pressure, and they can't make any diagnoses from above. Even ardent supporters admit they still have work to do when it comes to helping tree fruit. "Apples are tricky — really, really tricky," said John Sulik, applications specialist with MicaSense, a Seattle company that makes drone sensors and software for agricultural purposes. An August event in Pendleton, Oregon, called the Ag Drone Rodeo, attracted 250 people to watch vendors demonstrate the flying of unmanned aerial vehicles, often called UAVs or drones. The fi rst day, at a test strip near the airport, focused on the fl ying, while the second day centered on how to make use of the flight data generated by a drone. It was organized by Lorton, proj- ect manager for the Oregon UAS Future Farm, a real-world test range for drone and sensor manufacturers. Most sensors attached to drones rely on light refl ection — both visible and invisible, including near-infrared wavelengths — to create a map of a field or orchard. Tree canopies with varying heights and shadows throw off those sensors. Also, Federal Aviation Administration regulations require a line of sight between drone and operator. To comply, orchardists often need to stand on a lift, ladder or nearby hill. Then, for drones to be cost effective, growers would have to use them over a wide area. "The problem we're having: The bat- tery life on those is so short we're not able to make it through even a couple of vine- yards," said Jenn Smithyman, precision agriculture specialist for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates near Prosser, Washington. The company, the third largest premium wine company in the U.S., uses a variety of imagery from manned flights over 8,000 acres every year. She suspects smaller boutique grow- ers may be using the drones, "mixing their recreational activities with their farming jobs," she said. But she and others in the industry like the direction drone technology is headed. "We're still a few years out, but we're almost there," said Alex Ott, PLAY Watch different drones demonstrated at the Ag Drone Rodeo at Up in the air New Technology Gary Licquia launches a SenseFly eBee unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, equipped with a multispectral agricultural sensor during the Ag Drone Rodeo in August in Pendleton, Oregon. Licquia Integrated Controls, one of several groups demonstrating drones for agricultural use in a fi eld adjoining Linn Airfi eld.

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