SALEM — Like virtually every business, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unkind to Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture.
The company, based in the Salem area, was one of the first to fly drones commercially over farms, fitted with multi-spectral and infrared cameras to detect areas where crops may be experiencing stress from pests, disease or drought.
But once the pandemic hit last year, exposing vulnerabilities in the food supply chain, growers decided they couldn't afford this type of add-on service.
"We lost 100% of our business," said Josh Murphy, who founded Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture with his wife, Rhiannon.
It became clear that they would need to come up with something new — something that would offer their clients guaranteed cost savings, Murphy said.
The answer, it turns out, would come in the form of tiny, beneficial insects.
Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture partnered with Parabug, a California company that specializes in using drones to airdrop insects into fields that can help farmers combat crop-munching pests without the use of chemical pesticides.
Biological control of pests is growing in popularity as a management tool, Murphy said, though it can be a time- and labor-intensive process. For a 20-person ground crew, it could take several hours to spread the insects over 100 acres.
Drones, on the other hand, can accomplish the same work with a single pilot in a fraction of the time, Murphy said.
"It's a huge savings," he said. "Just since Dec. 1, we've saved our customers almost $100,000 over the cost of hand crews."
Viewpoint Aerial Agriculture works in two primary service areas. In the Pacific Northwest, they serve customers in the Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge and parts of Southern Oregon into Northern California. Some of the most popular crops include potatoes, winegrapes, hops, berries and, more recently, hemp.
During the rainy fall and winter seasons, Murphy and family migrate south to Florida, where they work with produce and citrus growers. That is where they started recouping their post-pandemic losses after becoming certified with Parabug.
"We've flown about 2,500 acres since the beginning of December," Murphy said.
Parabug's patented system works by mounting a pair of clear, cylindrical containers loaded with beneficial bugs to the bottom of drones, flying 15-20 feet off the ground and gently releasing the insects into fields and orchards.
The system was initially developed to drop predatory persimilis mites into strawberries, but has since expanded to other commercially reared beneficial insects, such as green lacewings and non-stinging parasitic wasps.
These bugs have proven effective at controlling other harmful agricultural pests, Murphy said.
"Some of them are general predators, and some of them are host-specific," he said. "Instead of relying on a spray and getting to a hard-to-get place underneath a leaf, these predators will seek them out and continue to hunt for you out in the field."
Aerial application makes this management tool more affordable, Murphy added, saving 50-75% compared to the cost of ground crews.
While Murphy said he expects Viewpoint's traditional imaging business to gradually return as pandemic restrictions are lifted, aerial applications of beneficial insects will likely make up the bulk of flights over the next couple of seasons.
"We've had huge success with that technology," he said.