Drones help farmers tap into aerial technology

Jim Owen (left), and his collaborator, Joe Maja from the University of Florida, with one of their drones that can help in inventory management of ornamental crops.

Jim Owen (left), and his collaborator, Joe Maja from the University of Florida, with one of their drones that can help in inventory management of ornamental crops.

Jim Owen’s research with unmanned aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones — has the potential to give farmers the ability to count inventory and manage water and nutrients from high in the sky.

His work with drones was born out of a need to find a more efficient way of counting inventory in nurseries, which is a terrestrial procedure that involves lasers.

“We were looking for something to deploy at a very low cost that can be used regularly,” said Owen, assistant professor of horticulture and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Unlike farming a single crop, the nursery industry emphasizes variety, which makes counting inventory a challenge. Using unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s possible for growers to get a more accurate visual depiction of the number of plants on hand.

Drones also allow growers to see water stress indicators more clearly using thermography, a type of photography that measures radiation from the sky.

Owen’s vision is to be able to look at water distribution and deploy technology to tell growers where to irrigate.

“Growers are ready to come on board,” Owen said.

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