Drones take to the skies for growers

Drones for studying almond growing water use

[Editor’s Note: AeroVironment is collaborating with California State Fresno on a one year study to determine how drones could help almond growers manage their water use more efficiently.]

This post originally appeared on http://www.dailydemocrat.com/business/20161217/drones-take-to-the-skies-for-growers.

 

AeroVironment Inc. has partnered with Cal State Fresno in a year-long study to determine how imagery and analytics from drones could be used to help almond growers better manage their water use.

As California nears its sixth year of serious drought the state’s thirstiest crops are under increased scrutiny, and almonds have been criticized for their intensive water footprint. Improved crop management is a major goal for all growers, including almond producers. That’s where AV figures it can help, according to Jon Self, vice president of the company’s commercial information solutions division.

“We look forward to developing a reliable and effective means of correlating multispectral data with almond tree hydration data to provide growers with better insight so they can proceed with certainty,” Self said in a statement.

The Monrovia-based maker of unmanned aircraft systems will work closely on the project with the school’s Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

AV will deploy its Puma UAV drone outfitted with a 24 megapixels photogrammetric camera and a 6-channel multispectral sensor to capture data and aerial imagery of Fresno State’s orchards. Its cloud-based analytics platform will then process and analyze the data for correlation with ground measurements.

The team will test the data the drone gathers and correlate it with ground-level hydration information to better predict how the crops should be watered. Fresno State researchers and campus farm staff will closely monitor the hydration levels of almond trees as well as environmental and crop conditions using a variety of soil and plant sensors.

AV’s Puma can fly for four hours on a single charge, although it can’t go higher than 400 feet under current Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The small, fixed-wing aircraft’s software allows several aerial photos to be stitched together to create one seamless shot of an entire growing area.

“The unique vantage point from our drones will give growers the ability to gain a much richer understanding of their entire orchard,” said Steven Gitlin, AV’s vice president of corporate strategy. “Most farming operations are not using any kind of aerial assessment so they have to walk the fields. If you’re talking hundreds of acres … you can only do a sampling of it.”

Drones could help an almond grower determine which portions of a field might need more water and which areas might need less.

“We believe that our technology and integrated solutions will have the ability to help growers apply water, nutrients and chemicals more efficiently, effectively saving money and resources,” Gitlin said. “If you’re using less water it’s not costing as much. You’ll have less water evaporating into the air and it will also reduce chemical runoff.”

More than 70 percent of almond orchards in California are using water-saving micro-irrigation systems, which are designed to use just enough water to be efficient.

An even larger group (80 percent) are using demand-based irrigation in their fields. Under that system, they review weather, soil moisture and the trees’ needs to determine irrigation strategies, rather than simply watering on a predetermined schedule.

All of those efforts have paid off.

Innovative farming and production developments over the past two decades have helped almond growers reduce the amount of water they use per pound of almonds grown by 33 percent, the Almond Board said.

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