Drone technology takes center stage at World Ag Expo

Julissa Zavala
The Hanford Sentinel, Calif.

TULARE, Calif. — While drones certainly aren’t an emerging technology in the agriculture industry, they are evolving to better suit growers and farmers — which is why no other subject is more suitable to talk about as the World Ag Expo came to a rainy close on Feb. 14 at the International Agri-Center in Tulare.

This year’s expo theme was “Harvesting Technology” and there were plenty of cutting-edge innovations on display, all aimed at making the lives of those in the ag industry easier by managing cost and resources.

Gone are the days of using a drone just to take images to see if irrigation water was making it to all the plants or trees.

Now, software going into the drones is helping growers and ranchers in so many different, specified ways. Most of the drones have phone applications where the drones can be tracked, data evaluated or video and images can be downloaded.

Ultravance Corporation, based in Westlake Village, introduced “Bulldog,” a new type of unmanned aircraft designed specifically for ranchers.

Steve Smith, application engineering director, has a 10-year background in drones for government defense. However, he said he was continually being asked by cattle ranchers for a drone that could fly long distances and stay in the air long enough to complete the work they needed.

“It was designed because people were asking for it,” he said.

The drone boasts short take-off and landing capabilities, and can be integrated with video, multispectral camera or infrared to boost functionality. It is also optimized for quiet operation to reduce stress on livestock.

Bulldog has a flight time of up to two hours and a maximum range of six miles. Smith said it gives ranchers the freedom to not have to drive out to check a water tank or fence, or make sure the bulls are in the right pasture.

“It allows the ranchers to do these things in a few minutes, where otherwise it would take hours,” Smith said.

While wings and propellers have been around for a long time now, Smith said software and camera payload have seen the most changes, even in the last year.

Ventura County-based AeroVironment was showcasing its “Quantix” hybrid drone, which is a fully integrated drone and data analytics ecosystem for the commercial ag industry.

The hybrid design allows the aircraft to launch vertically and transition to horizontal flight, which maximizes the aerodynamic efficiency and range. It can survey up to 400 acres per 45 minute flight.

Every year, drone technology and data analytics is being more accepted and embraced by the ag industry, said Eric Thompson, flight operations manager.

“It’s something that the farmers are really pushing forward with and integrating into their actual daily use and decisions,” he said.

Over the past several years, Thompson said drone technology has been narrowed down and integrated customer feedback to help deliver products that are more insightful to the users and fit their needs.

“It’s a full ecosystem that we’re starting to create and build,” Thompson said. “That’s why we created Quantix, to be that extra tool to provide more efficient decisions.”

Mark Dufau, director of business development, said the software on the drones is more important than the hardware because that data that can be accessed and used in a commercial operation.

For example, Thompson said growers can use the aircraft scout the fields and take multispectral orthomosaic imagery (stitching pictures) that can determine if there is stress on plants or if they need more nutrients, without having to walk the whole field themselves.

Dufau said precision technology is constantly changing and will be something that continues to evolve.

“The drone itself is cool, but the real important thing is how to use an image to better farming operations,” Dufau said. “That’s really the goal.”