Agriculture

Drones: The coming aerial assault on Idaho farms

Disease-spotting drones will soon be a mainstay of Idaho agriculture, according to experts.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJuly 16, 2014 

As usual, neighbors and friends gathered at Bitner Vineyards to watch the quadcopter drone lift off. It hovered over the rows of grape vines, buzzing like a 3.7-pound bumblebee. Vineyard owner Ron Bitner and the others shielded their eyes as they watched the drone fly over his 5 acres of vines on rolling, Sunny Slope hills southwest of Caldwell like a prop in a science fiction flick.

"It's totally fun. Everybody comes around to see it," Bitner says. "But it's more than fun. It's a real tool, for agriculture especially."

The vineyard is a testing ground for Northwest Nazarene University professor Duke Bulanon and his team of four engineering students. They are fine-tuning the drone's infrared camera, which can alert growers to crop diseases, inadequate moisture content and a host of other problems.

Remote controller in hand, senior engineering student Darrell Leber guided the drone over a few rows of grapes that Bitner had treated with a trial batch of fertilizer. The camera automatically snapped photos to be analyzed later to measure the treatment's performance.

Bitner, a professional entomologist with a Ph.D. from Utah State University, has grown grapes at Sunny Slope for 33 years using as few chemicals as possible. He says drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs - will soon help growers reduce chemical applications.

"Rather than spraying the whole field, if we can identify spots of disease or pests, we can do spot spraying," Bitner says.

"That will reduce chemicals. We can reduce water stress. There will be some real benefits to it."

The onlookers pulled cellphones from pockets and recorded videos as Leber landed the drone. Accepting the fellowship offered by his professor was an easy decision, he says. Leber says he hopes to get a job in the aerospace division of the defense industry.

"What? You want to pay me to fly drones? Yes," he says.

BIRD'S-EYE VIEW

Robert Blair has flown hobby-kit drones over his 1,500-acre farm 34 miles northeast of Lewiston since 2006. Blair says he was the first American grower to deploy UAV technology for agricultural purposes. He's gained a following on his blog, "The Unmanned Farmer," and collaborates with one of the University of Idaho's several drone-research projects.

Blair outfits his 3-pound fixed-wing Styrofoam UAV with a GPS autopilot system that tracks coordinates to traverse his barley, wheat, lentil, alfalfa and garbanzo bean fields. A digital infrared camera snaps photos that Blair downloads and scrolls through. He finds patches of crops needing attention and keeps an eye on plants after storms when the fields are too muddy for on-the-ground scouting.

"I can't cover 100 percent of my fields by traditional scouting," Blair says. "This allows me to see better and realize, 'Hey, I do have a problem out there. Maybe it's something I can fix.' "

Blair says drones can help growers improve their yields while accommodating the swelling demand for more eco-friendly farming practices.

"Agriculture has the tremendous responsibility of feeding 9.5 billion people by 2015, and doing so sustainably, as the activists say," Blair says. "This technology will allow us to better manage our inputs and make better management decisions."

STATEWIDE EFFORTS

Bulanon's NNU project is a partnership with the University of Idaho and is funded by state and federal grants worth a combined $134,000. It is one of at least three UAV research efforts underway in Idaho.

Donna Delparte, an assistant professor in the Idaho State University Department of Geosciences, is leading a coalition of researchers from Boise State University, the U of I and Idaho National Laboratory. Funded by a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the coalition will fly its drones over 2,400 acres of potato and sugar-beet fields in East Idaho each week. The J.R. Simplot Co. is contributing a part-time researcher and equipment.

The team translates spectral images of crops into data about chlorophyll production, water content and other crop-health indicators.

Delparte, who planned to begin data collection this week, says her drones will target pests and disease on a small scale.

"A potato or beet grower is interested in practically the leaves on every plant to try to nip a disease or biting insect," she says. "A wheat grower might be more interested in how a 5-meter by 5-meter square looks."

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer hopes to pull together state, industry and university resources to create an office organizing drone research for commercial partners. The state doesn't have much money to commit to the "center of excellence," as Sayer calls it. But he says a bare-bones budget fronted mostly by industry money could make Idaho a destination for drone manufacturing or research for whatever industries take interest.

Such an office might attract companies in what Delparte says will soon be a "billion-dollar" UAV-making industry, stimulating research money for universities, she says.

"Maybe it will help industry partners find somebody like me who can help advise on sensor development or data processing," Delparte says.

Advanced Aviation Solutions in Star offers training on how to use UAVs and consulting services aimed at tailoring UAV hardware and software packages to clients' needs. CEO Steve Edgar says Idaho can become a leader in drone development.

"We have the airspace, sparsely populated areas, facilities and everything you need to develop aerospace as an industry in Idaho, which can offer high-paying jobs in the future," Edgar says.

Sayer hopes to announce the office's opening in the coming year, though plans are still informal. Drone use will become commonplace in agriculture, Sayer says, and Idaho would be smart to move before other states roll out welcome mats for companies and researchers.

"(UAV use) is real, and it's coming," Sayer says. "I think it will come faster than people realize."

IMPEDIMENTS

Delparte says the Federal Aviation Administration has slowed UAV development by dragging its feet creating rules for commercial drones. The FAA's latest plan is to release rules in 2015, but its target date has already moved several times.

The FAA has levied fines or sent cease-and-desist orders to drone hobbyists and professionals such as real estate agents and journalists, Delparte says. The agency says it must weigh commercial benefits presented by UAVs - agriculture included - against concerns about privacy and safety, especially around airports and large groups of people.

Bulanon says his team is fine as long as it keeps its drone under 400 feet and at least 5 miles away from airports. Delparte says existing rules are a gray area, but so far agriculture researchers haven't had any problems.

"If farmers are flying their own units on their own property, there seems to be leeway," Delparte says.

Blair says the UAV enthusiasts he corresponds with don't draw attention to their drones for fear of FAA enforcement.

"Will there be rules? Yes," Blair says. "Will they be favorable for what agriculture needs to be successful? I doubt it."

Though high-end drones remain expensive - NNU also has a $10,000 drone awaiting repairs - the cost of UAV bodies and GPS and autopilot technology has fallen in recent years. Many out-of-the-box drones sell for $1,000 to $2,000 without cameras or sensors. Farmers such as Blair can build hobby kits for less. One of NNU's smaller drones was assembled in-house with parts made from the university's 3-D printer.

Bitner says drones will soon be inexpensive enough for mass adoption in agriculture.

"That would be around $1,500," he says. "The camera is the expensive part of it. Then you have to have a grandson so somebody can fly it for you. It's been so much fun, I'll probably get one, anyway."

The Post Register in Idaho Falls contributed.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464; Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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