‘Flying laptops’ in sky reshaping agriculture

Associate Editor

MT. AIRY, Md. (July 12, 2016) — It’s a prophecy beginning to sound a bit old — even before it pans out.
Drones are headed for agriculture, and they’re likely to dramatically reshape aspects of it.
That was the message late last month at Milkhouse Brewery where a modest collection of agriculturists, nursery growers and drone enthusiasts gathered to drink beer, tour the brewery farm and listen to a host of experts expound on the myriad advancements headed for agriculture thanks to “flying laptops” in the sky.
“The applications are really kind of endless,” said Toby Dilworth, a recent high school graduate who runs a small drone business where he creates property videos for the local real estate industry. “This is really kind of an emerging field, emerging market.”
Dilworth was there, perhaps indirectly, to show to how quickly the market for commercial drone services has developed and how open it is.
In a few short years, before he graduated from high school, he said he taught himself soldering and basic electronics so he could build his own drone. (He’ll pursue an engineering degree at the University of Maryland next year.) He also secured an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration — one of a relatively small number issued nationwide — allowing him to operate commercially.
Dilworth fielded questions from the group as they sipped Milkhouse beer. The applications for drones are somewhat endless, since they’re essentially computers with cameras, Dilworth and other experts said. It’s why software developers are the industry’s true rock stars and not pilots, said Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland’s UAS Test Site. (UAS stands for “unmanned aircraft systems.”)
Flying, after all, doesn’t require much, Dilworth said. If a farmer wanted to send a drone over a field of crops to search for stressed plants, all the operator would need is a GPS software program to create a simple flight plan. The operator launches the drone, and when it’s done, it can land back at your feet, he said.
Drones must be flown below 400 feet, however, and smaller drones, like the one used in a demo at the brewery, have flight time limits of about an hour and 20 minutes at a top speed of about 30 mph. In a nursery or tree farm context, they can be used to scout plant health. A farmer could conceivably forego the services of a climber when doing canopy inspections.
A Danish company is using drones to analyze tree pest issues and may eventually be able to precisely airdrop the eggs of predator insects that would kill pests, said Brent Rutley, past president of the Maryland Nursery Landscape and Greenhouse Association.
“You just have a new tool in the tool belt,” he said. “That’s where I see our industry going.”
Complex imaging software, which can cost up to $1,000 per year, even project crop yields, said Greg Phelps, an area photographer and drone enthusiast.
But drones could help growers in indirect ways as well, Scassero said. The Environmental Protection Agency is particularly excited about drone usage because the tools will help farmers more precisely apply inputs such as nutrients and sprays, he said. Japan, for instance, has been using drones to reach elevated and sometimes hard-to-access rice patties for roughly two decades.
“We need to get there,” Scassero said just before he and a colleague launched a camera drone into the air for the small audience.
It soared through a pre-programmed route over the field for several minutes before landing, unaided, just a few feet from where it took off.