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What Drones Have to Offer Agriculture

By Jodi Rinaldi, Tree Fruit Team Communications Coordinator, May 2023

Ten years ago the use of drones was controversial with respect to national air space safety and not allowed; however, it has become clear that there are practical applications that cannot be overlooked, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now recognizes the need for drone use and regulations are catching up. With this progress, new services are now specializing in their use for agricultural purposes, for both conventional and organic production. Bernardita Sallato, WSU Tree Fruit Extension Specialist and co-lead of Extension for WSU AgAID Institute and Lav Khot, WSU associate professor and Director of Ag WeatherNet organized a Drone Field Day last May to showcase Khot’s WSU PrecisionAg lab collaborative research around drone technology along with four local commercial drone services. The activity has hosted at Alexander Ranch, Hayden Orchards.

According to Jake Schrader, Smart Farm Engineering Technician for WSU AgAID Institute, properly configured drones are a tool that can deliver a payload with great precision and efficiency – “every drop to the crop.” In other words, loss due to drift is greatly reduced as is harm to the environment. That payload could be water, chemicals, beneficial insects, seeds, or simply air. The drones are nimble and can access locations that may be difficult, impossible, or prohibitively inefficient for other methods of distribution. Furthermore, because operation is remote, worker exposure to chemicals is nearly eliminated, necessary only for mixing and filling, but no exposure during application.

drone spraying orchard trees
Figure 1: Altitude Agri Services’ T-30 spray drone demonstration. The drone moves from tree-to-tree, quickly, efficiently, and safely delivering product to each tree one at a time.

Various types and sizes of drones are used for different purposes from imaging to crop protection applications. For anyone considering their own drone operation, there are FAA pilot licensing, operational regulations, and insurance requirements. Find more information at this site: FAA Become a Drone Pilot.

pilot demonstrating flying a drone
Figure 2: Jeff Larin, licensed drone pilot for GS Long conducting a flight demonstration.

The message from all of the presenters was the need for cooperation and mutual support to aid in the development of the relatively new practice, to remain safe, and to understand the potential of the technology to further advance and adopt it. Bill Kuper of AG Drone NW stated, “Drones are not a perfect tool, but they are evolving – getting better, smarter, and stronger.” Kurt Beckley of Altitude Agri Services added, “They will revolutionize the industry.”

What We Learned in Our WSU Drone Field Day

WSU CPAAS Precision Ag Group

Dr. Lav Khot and PrecisionAg team have been researching drone technology for more than a decade, using drones with multispectral and thermal imaging capability for plant stress monitoring, understanding crop water use, disease detection and prescript maps for precision chemical applications, orchard scale inversion profiling and mapping of cold sports for effective frost mitigation among others. Combining this information with weather data, they aim to develop crop protection models.

Dr. Khot and B. Sallato introduced the recently funded Artificial Intelligence Institute: Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support (AgAID), supported by the NSF and USDA-NIFA by the AI Research Institutes program, a long-term symbiotic partnership between AI, agriculture, and human systems that will help realize sustained agricultural productivity to meet future food demands, and highlighted WSU effort to create a transdisciplinary ecosystem for technology innovation and knowledge transfer.

outside near orchard speaking about drones
Figure 3: Dr. Lav Khot, WSU Associate Professor and Director of Ag Weather Net.

GS Long

Aaron Avila with GS Long Company provides Drone Services for three main purposes: mapping, video and image, and insect release. During the field day, Aaron and his pilots showed a drone that has been outfitted with a cylinder for beneficial insect distribution.

For more information, visit GS Long Company.

a medium size drone with cylinders on display
Figure 4: A GS Long drone equipped with cylinders for beneficial insect release.

AG Drones NW

Bill Kuper, Ag Drone Northwest founder and chief pilot, is enthusiastic about complex locations – steep, weird shapes, etc. He loves to problem-solve and to find ways to use this tech in that respect. Bill shared what the company offers, including mapping, scouting, and crop protection, and talked about his vision for future applications.

For more information, visit Ag Drones Northwest.

a man speaking about drone and map equipment
Figure 5: Bill Kuper presents the various pieces of equipment he uses for mapping.

Altitude Agri Services

Kurt Beckley, owner of Altitude Agri Services, shared a wealth of technical and regulatory information, the challenges of drone services and potential uses of drone technology for the Ag industry. His pilots flew the big spray Drone T-30, demonstrating spraying as well as drying of cherry trees.

For more information, visit Altitude Agri Services.

outside speaking to a group
Figure 6: Kurt Beckley sharing his knowledge.

Outfield and Tyton Aviation

Aaron Tyler, owner of Tyton Aviation, talked about their new partnership with Outfield to provide precision drone-based surveys for use by growers for a variety of purposes. Aaron sees a unique application in mapping crop damage. He is also looking toward creating a subscription service that would set up data collection and a basis for comparison.

Learn more about Outfield and Tyton Aviation

a man outside speaking into a microphone
Figure 7: Aaron Tyler explains his ideas.

Take Home

Drones with variable payload for tree-scale monitoring and precision crop protection will continue to  evolve. The FAA regulations will do catching up. The grower operation would be best served if the drone services are provided by the firms as add-on or lease option than individual operation investing in procurement of platforms that keep evolving annually. Crop monitoring applications, task mapping for ground-based precision crop protection will mature sooner than large acreage aerial crop protection.

Event Facilitation

This activity was coordinated by the Columbia Basin Tree Fruit Club and supported by Denny, Luke and Seth Hayden, who provided the demonstration site.

Sponsored by

Ag AID logotree fruit research commission logo


Washington State University