FarmSolutions In the News

Rise of the drones: Farm technology takes off with aerial data gathering

Drones can spot crop problems

FRENCH CAMP — About 200 feet above Nick Mussi’s tomato field a black speck buzzes in the sky taking pictures and collecting data. After 20 minutes it lands, bringing a wealth of information about the state of Mussi’s crop.

FRENCH CAMP — About 200 feet above Nick Mussi’s tomato field a black speck buzzes in the sky taking pictures and collecting data. After 20 minutes it lands, bringing a wealth of information about the state of Mussi’s crop.

“[We’ll look] to see the different places, the crop vigor. There’s a lot of variation in one field,” Mussi said.

Mussi asked tech company Farm Solutions to bring its unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to his farm to show him how it works and what it can tell him about his crop. After just a couple of trips over the 80-acre field, the drone had collected more data about the tomatoes in a couple of hours than Mussi could have collected if he’d walked the field himself.

“That would probably take all day,” Mussi said. “And you probably wouldn’t get as good a survey as they’re getting.”

In the agriculture industry, which is becoming more sophisticated in its use of technology, drones are the newest thing. Drones got a boost late last fall when the Federal Aviation Administration started giving out, on a case-by-case basis, Section 333 exemptions which permit companies to fly drones commercially. One of the first companies in California to get an exemption was Farm Solutions in Ventura County.

“I saw a need as a novice grower,” said the company’s founder and CEO Jon Tull. “I found that I didn’t have enough information to make consistsently strong farm decisions. I found the tools available were not as intuitive or powerful as I felt was required.”

Farm Solutions drones carry a variety of cameras to collect high-definition visual imagery, infrared, and thermal images. That data is loaded into the Farm Solutions software, interpreted and presented in an easy-to-read graphical interface. The software detects specific anomalies in the field such as irrigation system water leakage, pest infestations or plant stress.

Farm Solutions’ software draws a boundary around each identified problem and guides the agronomist or farm worker, using the GPS system on their phone, to the exact location where the problem was detected.

Other companies offer drone fly-overs, but many give farmers video only.

“The big distinction between aerial picture-taking and what we do is we convert the imagery into actionable data,” Tull said.

Mussi looked into drone technology before but found it too expensive. He said that’s changing. Prices are coming down and the technology is improving.

“Before it was just a picture — this is what it looks like,” Mussi said. “Now they have infrared and the RGB and all those different kinds of crop sensors they can use while they’re flying over.”

Farm Solutions held a demonstration for about 40 Stockton-area growers in mid-August. The farmers are clients of Dohrmann Insurance, which has partnered with Farm Solutions to help its Central Valley farm customers be proactive in protecting crops.

“The demo was really thorough,” said Bryan Colyer of Dohrmann Insurance. “Farm Solutions did a great job of walking everyone through the process of what each of the cameras did, what kind of images they were taking, what they identify and how the data becomes actionable.”

Dohrmann Insurance’s CEO, Greg Dohrmann, is also a grower and said he was impressed by the detail Farm Solutions can collect. Having his company partner with Farm Solutions seemed like a good fit.

“We’re always looking for ways to bring value-added services to our clients,” Dohrmann said. “We partnered with them to help our growers learn more about them, get a discount for their services, and really sort of take that technology to the next level, understand why they need it, what it’s going to do for them.”

Dohrmann plans to have more demonstrations later in the fall in other parts of San Joaquin County.

The cost to contract with Farm Solutions varies depending on the size of the field and the number of times a farmer needs to have it flown, Tull said. However, generally the cost is about $9 to $11 an acre. His company supplies the drone, the pilot, the flight plan and the software, for which there is a monthly fee.

The type of crop a farmer has also helps determine how many times it should be flown. Tull said an almond farmer, for instance, may have his orchards flown to look at new flush, again during blossom, after fertilizing and before harvest to assess the canopy.

The information that is gathered is uploaded to a secure server. Tull said it’s propriety information owned by the farmer and that his company does not sell or rent it.

Tull has 11 drone pilots working for him now, but he said his company is growing fast and he expects to have 100 pilots training throughout California by the end of the year.

“We have sought and are receiving ag exemptions to fly virtually all ag drones,” he said. “I believe we’ll have more ag drone exemptions than any other drone company.”

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