David Alamillo, drone operator, makes a pre-flight check (Photo by Gene Beley)
Central Valley farmers have a history of quickly adopting the latest in technologies to improve yields and now drones could be the next big thing, says Katharine Rosser, a sales engineer with FarmSolutions of Westlake Village.
She told a small group of farmers and their representatives that her company can fly over their land with drones and provide solutions for water distribution and applications, as well as telling about crop stresses.
Ms. Rosser said John Tull, a grower who needed advanced data for himself, started the company. He figured if it was good for him, then maybe other growers would need it too and began FarmSolutions. Today the company sells the service for $8-$14 an acre, depending on what the grower orders in custom packages.
Remarkably, they have been able to obtain a coveted Federal Aviation Administration drone commercial license after paying thousands of dollars to attorneys. “The FAA license is the stamp of approval,” said Ms. Rosser.
She emphasized the drone approach does not replace the human element. The helicopter-like devices just provide the information for the farmers on the ground. “All of our tools today are designed to enhance farming operations to give you more data,” said Ms. Rosser.
Why use a drone when you can use Google Earth?
“The benefit of a unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) is it is up to date and current,” she said. “We know exactly when it was taken and the level of resolution that gives better detail.”
FarmSolutions does not use the usual quad-copters or even hex-copters with four or six propellers, said Ms. Rosser. The one they used for their Stockton demonstration across from the Roberts Union Farm Center on Howard Road looked like a flying wing with one prop in the rear and a battery that gives 40 minutes flying time. This is much more than most quad-copters than can’t fly more than 20 minutes on a charge.
“Most drones get a high resolution picture to hang on your wall,” said Ms. Rosser. “What we like to do is take that one step farther from a high resolution and crystal clear image and customize it. Depending on what you’re doing we can do thermal analysis where the camera is looking for different signatures.
“We tailor the flight package for what issue you are trying to solve. Then we analyze that with a staff of experts in aero-image analysis. We bring together that technology with the agricultural aspect.”
She said the real magic comes with a thermal image camera that measures temperature in the field. Her firm has been able to find curly top virus that stunts the growth of the plant and sucks up unnecessary water. However, they are still waiting for a camera that can penetrate the soil but know that will come eventually, as technological advances are coming quickly.
Ms. Rosser said for large jobs, like 500 acres, they can use up to three drones simultaneously to knock out the job faster. “If one misses a GPS coordinate, the other can pick it up.”
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