Drones have been used in war, espionage, research, videography — and farming. Now, drones are being adapted for blueberry crops.

Flying overhead, drones can spot troubled areas in a massive blueberry patch in a fraction of the time it takes a farmer on foot.

David Bryla, horticulturist at the USDA, said he is working to adapt drones for use with specialty crops such as blueberries.

“Drones aren’t new in farming,” said Bryla. “What’s new is that we’re building drones for more specific use with berries. We’re taking it to the next level.”

Drones take aerial images and gather data when flying over blueberry patches. They can pick up on stresses such as low nitrogen or pathogens, measure the density of canopy cover and tell the temperature of plants. With a thermal camera, a drone can detect drought stress — which can help a farmer manage water use or identify leaks in pipe.

Bryla works closely with Scott Orr, a biological research technician at USDA. Together, Bryla and Orr are developing an app farmers will be able to download on their phones. The app will deliver data from the drone to the farmer in real-time. A Washington State Department of Agriculture specialty crop grant is funding the research.

“Farmers are excited about it,” said Orr. “The future of drones in agriculture is about being crop-specific. Fine-tuning. And it’s about delivering data to farmers in a way they can use.”

Bryla and Orr spoke about drone use at a blueberry field day hosted by Oregon State University’s Extension Service July 17. Farmers and their children gasped and pointed as Orr demonstrated drone use.

But farming with drones also brings challenges.

The sun is sometimes a friend and sometimes an enemy. Orr says it’s ideal to fly drones around solar noon. If you fly a drone too early or too late, Orr says, the sun will cast sharp shadows that make rougher images and grainy data.

Wind, too, makes using drones tricky.

Wayne Ackermann, one of the attendees at the blueberry field day, said wind stole his drone.

It had been a windy day — not too windy, Ackermann thought. Everything should be fine. He had just repaired his drone a few weeks prior and spent more than $800. “I watched it lift off,” he said. “As soon as it caught the wind, I literally watched it fly away and never come back. I just stood there in shock and thought, ‘There goes my money.’” Ackermann said he learned his lesson about flying drones in the wind.

Though they pose challenges, industry leaders say drones could revolutionize blueberry growing.

Oregon Blueberry Commission Administrator Bryan Ostlund said as the industry and climate change, the use of new technologies like drones becomes more important.

“Production costs are higher,” said Ostlund. “There’s more competition. Oregon still has the highest production per acre, and we haven’t seen the real ramifications of climate change here yet. But it’s coming. Technology like drones will help farmers lower production costs and get an edge over climate change. Efficiency is key, and that’s what drones are all about.”

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