The nursery and greenhouse industry is known for adopting new technology. When it comes to exploring advanced production technologies, we’re not exactly wallflowers.
OAN members have invested their time in the development of smart-sprayer technology by serving as testers. They’ve embraced the OAN’s Nursery Guide, a searchable hub that brings buyers and sellers together online.
And now, members are on the forefront of using unmanned aerial vehicles — UAV’s, more commonly called drones — for a number of purposes.
When I think of a tech geek (which I mean in a nice way), one person is foremost in my mind. I have known Rod Park, who owns Park’s Nursery in Gresham, for 20 years, which predates my time at the OAN. He has always been a gadget guy — a perfect counter balance for my suspicious, Luddite and tech-phobic ways.
Leave it to Rod to use drone technology as a marketing vehicle. He filmed footage of his farm, then played the video at his Farwest Show booth this last year.But there are many more ways in which nurseries are starting to use drones. The possibilities are exciting to contemplate.
Past decade of research and technology
It’s no secret that Amazon wants to deliver its packages with drones, but the best and most impactful use of drones may be in more rural farm communities.
To some, a drone looks like a flying spider — around the size of a turkey — and looks like a toy. Some drones are toys, but the ones a nursery would use are serious. Outfitted with GPS technology with pre-programmed points and elevation parameters, today’s drone can fly over the top of crops with inches to spare and zoom higher to give a true bird’s eye view.
Several years ago, researchers were in Oregon testing potential applications after a breakthrough by the University of Florida. Researchers modified a multi-rotor craft, giving it the ability to count, identify and detect pest and disease issues. Many in the industry see the practicality, even as questions remain about the value proposition for small versus larger growers.
The legal limits of drones
There are some pretty sensible rules around drones. For example, you can-
not shoot them out of the sky if they annoy you.
Obviously, everyone should operate a drone in a careful manner. The operator must be able to see it without the use of binoculars. You can’t drive and fly at the same time unless you are in a sparsely populated area, and the drone cannot exceed 400 feet above the ground or that same distance above a structure.
The most challenging rule is that drones can be only used during the day. That’s problematic because the drones are technologically capable of operating at any hour, day or night. The FAA will not allow us to use a drone inside the Oregon Convention Center during the Farwest Show for marketing purposes. I guess that makes sense to protect our exhibitors, though it’s a bit of a buzzkill.
In rural areas, the privacy and safety concerns are less prevalent and the potential uses for drones are more promising, especially on large-scale farms.
Nursery applications of drone technology is growing
Robust investments in drone technology have opened up applications for different field uses. Soil and field analysis can be digitized into 3D maps, and used for irrigation and nitrogen-level management as well as planting.
While there still are concerns about using drones for pesticide application, there is the potential ability to identify and surgically treat for weeds, thus reducing the necessity (or current practice) of treating the entire field to ensure the weeds are all gone. The ban on daylight use comes into play here — it may well be more practical to fly and treat at night, when the wind is down.
Drones with cameras have the opportunity to detect pests earlier than traditional scouting methods allow. It would be easier to send a crew out to address a smaller area for treatment than have them cover the entire farm.
Another potential advantage is to record a visual history of what a grower has produced over time, and be able to identify how the plant is looking in a certain field at a particular time. Drones can also be used to document new tile and irrigation lines so that the grower may find them more easily in the future. Drones can monitor crop growth and fertilizer needs along with more precise measurement of crop planting rows for calculations of the number of plants per row.
According to Rod and some other growers, drone technology is a boon for marketing. It is dynamic, provides a tour of the nursery through high-resolution video, and demonstrates for customers the clean, pest-free growing conditions of Oregon’s nursery industry.
The larger the nursery operation, the more cost-effective this tool may be. The cost of a drone has come down dramatically over the past several years, but it remains a tool that must be justified by the cost/benefit to the operation, depending on the needs of the grower.
Oregon has three FAA-approved testing ranges and use by agricultural operations is growing. With greater acceptance of this tool, I hope authorities will relax the regulations on drones for appropriate field use by Oregon growers. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for the use of drones to manage crops and market the nursery industry.