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Durham: Ag drones cleared for liftoff


Earth Week has recently wrapped up. That meant one thing — it was time to contemplate how our behaviors contribute to (or detract from) the elusive concept of “sustainability.”

On my college campus, a call was put out for opinionated professors to rant and rave on a topic of their choosing, in a rapid fire format. Basically, limit ourselves to five measly minutes in a public forum. A near impossibility!

One talked about the folly of mountaintop removal. Others about the injustices of the local gas pipeline, or our unhealthy obsession with material wealth. All timely, fascinating topics. As the resident farmboy, I took a more contrarian view. How we can leverage high-yield agriculture to ensure a sustainable future for everyone? All while sparing the most vulnerable and biodiverse wilderness the plow?

While demographer jaws are dropping at the prospect of more mouths to feed by 2050, food security isn’t the only thing on our communal plate. As we strive to squeeze the most out of the smallest parcel of land — with minimal eco-impact — what darkhorse technologies can potentially cement our legacy of stewardship?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) make a compelling case. While they’ve already made a splash on the consumer/enthusiast side, the next sensible leap is to farmer’s fields. I’m convinced they can make a tangible impact on not only farmer wallets, but more nuanced ecological measures.

What’s the saying — we only use 10 percent of our brains? Not scientifically valid, but it does aptly describe the untapped potential of drones to date. We think of most drones as recon tools, mounted with 1080p GoPro cameras. On the family farm, we use it to take promotional shots for social media. My favorite is tandem manure spreading, a graceful duet if I ever saw one. But drones are much more versatile.

More than a simple field implement or itinerant rustbucket, a drone can perform sophisticated field analyses from afar. Basically, it’s your personal airborne scout ship for pests, disease, and other plant stressors. Keep tabs on your field remotely and identify emerging problems, or pay special attention to known trouble spots.

Equipped with a high capacity SD card and multiple imaging cameras, the drone flies over a predefined area and takes a series of high resolution images, all stitched together into a stunning top down field panoramic. Multiple overlays are all pegged to GPS coordinates.

This is the embodiment of “big data.” And it takes quite a bit of time to compile those digital bytes into something usable. Post-processing, the pictures are loaded with information, color coded like a weather map for interpretation.

Patchy distributions on the map? Maybe you have a nematode problem. Go out and ground truth (walk the field, sample, and send to the diagnostic lab). Base your management decisions on the results.

Are the headlands of your field color coded blood red? Maybe pests are congregating on the fringes of the field. It’s Club Med and they’re too lazy to move inward. Typical. Head on over and sample. If the pest numbers are above the threshold, think about a targeted spray in the zone. No need to blindly spray the whole field on a calendar basis. If the numbers are at or just under threshold, a targeted release of some beneficials might be in order.

The same applies to fertilizer and irrigation needs. Complement your aerial data with data from terrestrial equipment, like tractor mounted sensors. These can take a snapshot of your field’s soil types, pH, and nutrient status. Pull up the data when you go out and fertilize or seed. Precision ag and variable rate technology. If a patch of soil is poor, give it a few more granules of spot fertilization than its neighbor to pick up the slack. If the soil is exemplary, plant that corn a little bit denser.

We know where every granule has been dropped and every seed sown. It’s all part of a customized, data-driven, decision making continuum. And it’s compatible with the old standby, integrated pest management (IPM).

The bottom line is that farmers should embrace technology to streamline their daily to-do list. Drone technology and the like allows us to elegantly target field operations — saving costs and being a good steward in the process.

That’s not to say that drones and related technologies are 100 percent ready for prime time. The entry costs and learning curve can be daunting. Despite that, prices will retreat enough to ensure mass adoption. And farmers regularly find a way to cost share new technologies if it behooves them.

The court of public opinion has a tendency to dwell on dysfunction rather than innovation. It’s a given that we’ll have to reckon with an increasingly resource-strained world. Drones and the like are another tool in our arsenal to guard against factors that threaten food security and undermine environmental quality. That’s the epitome of what Earth Week is supposed to about. Straddling all pillars of sustainability — humans, environment, and economics. Not the closeted human bashing that it often devolves into.

There’s reason to be optimistic. To that end, Luddites and your Farmer’s Almanac be damned, the technocrats are poised to take the floor!


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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