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Drones Make Fruit Farmers More Efficient


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hand picking an apple from a tree

A human can collect only a fraction of the data from a much smaller area than could be covered by a drone in a single day.

Credit: Getty Images

Drones are making farmers more efficient by helping them improve yields and stay ahead of problems.

While most agricultural applications for unmanned aerial vehicles involve grain crops like wheat, corn, and soy, the "adoption and use of crop sensors in production agriculture saves thousands of dollars every year in many crops," says Olga Walsh, research assistant professor at the University of Idaho, who is researching the use of drones for fruit trees. "Crop sensors also help to significantly improve the efficiency of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and water. Finally, drones can minimize negative impacts of agricultural activities on environmental quality."

The fruit industry in Idaho grows grapes, cranberries, apples, and even alternative fruits like Asian pears. Apples are the state's largest fruit crop, with over 60 million pounds of apples produced per year, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Walsh's research team focused on applying UAV technology to fruit trees. "We know drones can be used in orchards," she says. "But there aren't any grower recommendations regarding what data needs to be collected and what kind of data is most useful, depending on the grower objective."

The most promising ways the drones could be employed for orchards and tree nurseries are:

  • taking inventory of tree height and canopy volume;
  • monitoring tree health and quality;
  • managing water, nutrients, pests, and disease in-season;
  • estimating fruit/nut production and yield; and
  • creating marketing tools (such as videos for the promotion of an orchard, or the sale of trees and fruit).

Like with other uses of drones in agriculture, Walsh's work helps collect detailed information about  crops faster than humans by physically "scouting" the fields. "The UAVs are capable of acquiring images with high resolutions that are ideal for detecting various crop issues," says Walsh. "The UAV systems allow scanning the crops from above. They obtain high quality images and high-resolution spectral data. This is correlated with plant growth, health, water and nutrient status, and can be used to estimate biomass production." All are indicators of potential yield.

In addition, "sensors can function within regions of the electromagnetic spectrum where human eyes can't," says Walsh. "Sensors are much more reliable and objective than visual assessment. They provide quantitative information (numeric data that can be measured and compared) versus qualitative information (descriptive data that can be observed)."

Team members also perform outreach. "We conduct grower education on the use of remote sensing and using UAVs for crop monitoring," says Walsh. "We do demonstration flights and produce publications to boost grower adoption of precision agriculture methods."

"The overall goal of this work is to strengthen sustainability and competitiveness of Idaho fruit tree producers," says Walsh. "Our findings increased awareness, knowledge, and adoption of crop sensors and UAVs."

Walsh describes her work in "UAV-Based In-Season Assessment of Fruit Trees," which she presented at the 2019 International Annual Meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. University of Idaho Assistant Professor Sanaz Shafian is co-author of the work.

Funding for this project came from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture Nursery Advisory and Florist Advisory Committee.

 


 

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