An exhibitor at the Small Farm Expo in Fresno displays agriculture drone technology, Parabug.(Photo: Natalie Willis/Valley Ag Voice)

By Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

As labor costs continue to increase, agriculture is moving toward a technical future. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, labor expenses are expected to increase more than 4% in 2023.

For every $100 spent on production, almost $10 goes toward labor, including contract and hired labor payments, the report explained. One of the most prevalent modern technologies in agriculture is the Unmanned Aircraft System. That is the use of drones to spray fields as an alternative to the tight labor market.

According to Jon Slikker, aerial applicator at Vince Dusters in Buttonwillow, agriculture drones are embedded into the future industry but face considerable challenges in terms of regulation and cost. Troubleshooting issues lay primarily in reducing drift to other materials.

“If we can’t figure out how to control the spray from getting off target, then you’re gonna have complaints, and the county ag commissioner’s office has to investigate. That means that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation will more than likely get involved,” Slikker said. “We’ve got a lot of years of doing this and studying these issues, and we’ve got some UAS operations and pilots in our association…so we’re definitely trying to educate them on where we came from and how we became as regulated as we are so that way, they don’t make the same mistakes we did in the past.”

MARKET FUTURE

A global agricultural drone market report for 2023-2028 expects the overall market size to reach $9.01 billion by 2028. While drones are changing certain industry practices, traditional, manned applications are not expected to become obsolete. Slikker explained that both practices will have a place in the industry, at least for him.

“I mean, we all have or are going to recognize that the future is unmanned aerial. I personally don’t see one or the other, I see an integration of the two in the future,” Slikker said. “I do see the unmanned platforms reaching to the levels of what our modern aircraft are — the size and the weight capabilities — but I don’t know when that’s gonna happen.”

He noted that the price of unmanned applications must come down to enter that realm, given that the UAS performs at the same level a manned aircraft does. The price of agricultural drones varies based on size and included features, but they are generally large expenses. According to the global report, the high cost of drones poses a barrier to entry for small-scale farmers.

Included in the cost of a drone are additional software, training, and maintenance expenses. However, according to Slikker, cost accessibility may develop in the coming years once UAS is well-established.

“As the technology just gets more advanced and more accessible, you’re gonna find that the price does go down. Everything’s kind of high, everything’s still kind of in the research phase…so with that, there comes a lot of costs with trying to figure out how they’re gonna work, how they’re gonna be implemented,” Slikker said. “The infrastructure is still pretty new [but] as things get bigger and infrastructure increases, I think you’re gonna see the price of things go down to be able to have one.”

North America accounts for the highest share of the global agriculture drone market due to the availability of advanced technology, the global report explained. The presence of essential drone manufacturers and technology providers also characterizes the region.

Until recently, farmers in California faced several permitting obstacles in getting approval for agricultural drones. On Oct. 7, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1016, which expedites the training and licensing programs for the use of drones in pesticide applications.

The California Farm Bureau Federation fostered the bill’s creation in response to the outdated regulatory process required for farmers and employees to obtain drone application licenses.

“The regulations that have been in place for upwards of 40 years weren’t a really great fit with the technology coming to market and how farmers wanted to use it,” Peter Ansel, policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau, told Ag Alert.

According to Slikker, as the technology moves forward, troubleshooting potential drift is still necessary.

“A proper equipment setup is something that will mitigate the drift potential and accurately put material on the field in an effective and safe manner to property and persons,” Slikker said. “So, that goes back to that drift. Trying to check for the pattern, trying to find a uniform, even controllable pattern.”

LOCAL RESEARCH

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, created a web application to help farmers and industry workers use drones and other unarmed aerial vehicles to generate more accurate data across various climates.

The When2Fly app, developed by Associate Professor at UC Davis Alireza Pourreza and postdoctoral researcher Hamid Jafarbiglu, was specifically created to address hotspots that impact the reliability of drone data.

Hotspots are glare-like areas that distort the collected information, essentially ruining the data. Jafarbiglu explained that he first noticed the hotspot phenomenon after analyzing a data set from Fresno.

Generally, researchers gather data from a field by collecting several images and analyzing for differences in colors or spectral reflectance. Any difference in the spectral reflectance of a tree might indicate an underlying issue, he explained. With the use of a reflectance panel, the values should be similar, if not comparable, no matter the time-of-day data is gathered. For Jafarbigulu, however, discrepancies were still present, which led to the discovery of hotspots.

“In California, we have this problem that [when] it’s completely sunny — the sun is above our head — and then we are taking images when the drone, a plant, and the sun happens to be in the same line, that area will be the hottest spot,” Jafarbigulu said. “In that area, you will see higher reflectance values, so even though the tree is completely normal and similar to the other trees, if it’s closer to the hottest spot, you will see a higher reflectance.”

The When2Fly app was created to tell growers when the best time to fly is and when not to in terms of hotspot prevalence. Through the app, drone users select the date, type of camera, and location they plan to fly to calculate the best times of that day for data collection.

Jafarbigulu explained that the Central Valley’s unique climate and topography present specific challenges that the application is tailored to, and in avoiding specific hours, drone users can ensure more reliable data, which in turn better informs decisions in precision agriculture practices.

For Slikker, the development of drone technologies and application aids is an exciting fact of the future, but farmers in the Central Valley are still in the early stages of adoption.

“I think farmers are interested in it, but I think the overall cost is still a barrier…but you still get the unmanned ground spray systems that are on tractors that are doing a good job,” Slikker said. “Overall, it’s positive. I know from mapping and surveying that it’s a very effective tool, but we’re still just dipping our toes into the water here with [using it for] spraying ag fields.”

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