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Drones in the orchards

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Drones have been used for years to help grain farmers improve the efficiency of their operations. Research is underway to enable orchard owners to do the same by applying drone technology to fruit trees.

Olga Walsh, an agronomy expert in crop production systems at the University of Idaho, says they are still in the experimental stage. But the number one request from Idaho fruit growers is for drones to be able to inventory the height and canopy of trees.

“They need to send people out to try to physically count each tree and see what conditions they’re in. In the winter, for example, it’s not very efficient, it takes them hours,” says Walsh. “Instead, they also know that if they could just fly a drone, they could show in real time what kind of trees they have.”

He says the new way of planting peaches and apples will make it easier for drones to fly over trees. UAV sensors are much more reliable and objective than visual assessment.

“Trees are pruned in a special way, where the branches are flattened rather than the usual round canopy. So we can fly in between the rows and see very accurately, pretty much any apple or peach,” he says. “So it’s a very efficient system for managing trees”.

Drones show promise in orchards for water, nutrient, pest and disease management, crop yield estimation and creating marketing tools.