Drones for fruit farmers

Drones have been used for years to help grain farmers improve efficiencies in their operations. Research is underway to do the same for orchard owners by applying drone technology to fruit trees.

Olga Walsh is an extension specialist in cropping systems agronomy at the University of Idaho. She says as of now, they’re in the experimental stage. However, the number one request from fruit growers in Idaho is a drone’s ability to take inventory of tree height and canopy volume.

"They have to send out people trying to physically count each tree and see what conditions they’re in. In the winter, for example, it’s just not very efficient, it takes them hours to do that," says Walsh. "Instead, they know that if they could just fly a drone and in real time show the different quality of trees they had."

She says a new way of planting peaches and apples will make it easy for drones to fly through the trees. The UAV sensors are much more reliable and objective than visual assessment.

"The trees are pruned in a specific way where the branches are more flat rather than this round canopy. And in that way, we can fly in between the rows and we can see very accurately, we can see precisely pretty much every apple, or every peach," she says. "So, it’s as very efficient system in terms of managing those trees." 

Drones show promise in the orchard for managing water, nutrients, pests, and diseases, estimating fruit yield, and for creating marketing tools.