Mini 'crop copter' to cut costs for SH growers

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Mini 'crop copter' to cut costs for SH growers

With heightened threats of disease and a growing focus on yield improvement, the horticulture industry needs whatever boost it can get when it comes to farm monitoring. Until now the answer has been expensive airplanes or exhaustive tree inspections on the ground, but a German technology adapted by the University of Florida could change all that.

Associate professor Dr Reza Ehsani doesn't like the term 'crop chopper' for the mini helicopter that buzzes around farms, taking high resolution photos of crops on a programmed GPS course.

"Some people have called it the crop chopper. I don’t prefer that name as it sounds like your chopping crops, and that’s not what it’s used for," he told

What was first a military innovation and then the paparazzi's dream, the Mikrocopter has been adapted by the university's Citrus Research and Education Center for application in agriculture, under the tag 'crop copter'.

He says while the technology has potential in large-scale farming, it shows great promise in less developed countries too.

"My feeling is that in a lot of countries, even if they want to have aerial imaging, they wouldn’t have access to an airplane or aerial provider, and it’s in these countries where this would have a good application," he says.

"There’s a large scope of ways you can use aerial image for disease management, tree counting, as well as for irrigation applications. While the technology is available there are very few growers who use it, but why? The first thing is it can cost US$900 per hour to rent an airplane.

"It could end up costing US$3000 to US$4000 just to get one full image of a farm. If you then want to monitor plant growth you’ll need to use it multiple times, and the cost adds up fast."

Hovering opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere

He says the helicopter costs around US$10,000 but through its benefits that can often be paid off very quickly. While this sum could be prohibitive for many Southern Hemisphere growers, one Chilean consulting company is planning to invest in the technology for a range of small and medium-sized farming clients.

San Fernando-based company Dayenu Ltda  plans to use the crop copter in its dealings with clients, often small farmers that are yet to realize their export potential.

Dayenu consultant Dr Dvora-Laiô Wulfsohn says the company engages in projects involving yield estimation and precision farming management.

"This small helicopter would be an advantage in working with growers - we've been using airplanes up until now but we’re looking to use this technology," she says.

"They cost about US$10,000 and considering the usage for one grower it doesn’t pay off, but as a consulting company we can use them for many growers.

"Certainly the helicopters are more affordable than airplanes, but it’s more than that. You can get to the tree cover and have high resolution. The only limit to height is the tree height."

For this reason Ehsani emphasizes the crop copter's potential is not purely a cost equation when comparing with airplane monitoring.

"With the airplane aerial imaging technology you can only get a one foot resolution and for some applications you need to see the leaf and have one-inch resolution. The third thing is availability. If you need the image this week it’s a question of whether there will be an airplane available. Timing is very important.

"If you conduct aerial imaging of the soil 48 hours after the rain, it tells you the variability of the soil and you can create management zones. Or if you have a drainage issue, within 24 hours of the rain you can work out what you need to do.

"It’s fully automated with GPS so you can just lift it up and let it go; it’s a tool for growers in making management decisions. It’s unbelievable how you can use it to see things on top that you can’t see at the ground level."

Disease management and the demands of modern horticulture

Ehsani cites New Zealand's Psa outbreak as a telling example of how important disease monitoring is at the moment, while the dynamics of Florida's citrus industry have changed dramatically in recent years due to cirus greening disease, also known as 'Huanglongbing'.

"For many diseases like this (Psa) there is no cure and the only solution is to remove to prevent the spread, so early detection is becoming a more important part of management, and people need to consider that.

"In Florida, five years ago no one needed to do field scouting, but now you have to go through every row and that adds US$100 per acre looking at the trees. It wasn’t an issue before but I suspect it’s going to get worse."

Regulations, regulations, regulations

As with many new technologies, the crop copter could unravel an unprecedented thread of legal and ethical issues. In the U.S. the technology's application falls under the Federal Aviation Administration, which will likely need to accomodate its laws to the technology whilst also ensuring the safety of recreational and commercial craft.

"For example, it can go up to 1000 meters (3280 feet) and that's a lot, but you're not allowed to. You have to go below 400 feet (121.9 meterrs)," says Ehsani.

"The systems capacity with UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) can go to a point where you can’t see it, and that can be dangerous. So there will need to be working on new rules and regulations.

"You already have the paparazzi wanting to use it, they can go to someone’s house, and because of that there will need to be some kind of licensing, some rules and regulations about how you can use it."

This principle will need to be applied wherever farmers are wanting to use the technology.

"A lot of technology comes from the military – first they develop the technology for the military and then it reaches the public. GPS is an example of a military application that now is used a lot more by civilians; I think this could happen with the helicopter platform and agriculture."

The University of Florida is still developing the crop copter to not only have data-collecting applications, but also interpretation technology to pinpoint exactly what the problems are.

"To tell exactly what’s wrong will take us more time, but we don’t want to lose sight. This tree problem detection is still really important and you can do target scouting which saves time."

If the idea of the crop copter has got you in a spin, contact Dr Ehsani by email at

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