Precision Tree Management
Drone imaging for better fruit crops
Reduces need for labour, increases efficiency, protects the environment
How can we profitably use the latest technology for orchard farming, while listening to farming needs?
As orchards get bigger, and the supply of available labour dwindles, managing tree health and fruit yield is becoming increasingly costly, difficult and time consuming. In this day and age, keeping up with the world’s rising demand for healthy food like fresh fruit is a priority – not to mention the growing necessity to accommodate environmental concerns in agriculture. But how can farmers address these pressing agricultural issues in the 21st century?
What are the benefits of drone imaging in orchards?
A vision of healthy orchards
Combining advanced machinery and state-of-the-art technology is the modern and effective way to manage orchards. The contemporary farmer can take advantage of emerging technologies such as digitalisation, AI, robotics, autonomous equipment and advanced sensor technologies to enhance tree health and improve crop yields.
One promising approach brings together three elements: drone imaging and mapping, AI-based tree analysis, and systems for focused and prescriptive tree treatment such as the latest spraying technologies.
Ideally, farmers need a quick but comprehensive overview of their orchards, and a way of reacting swiftly, completely and precisely to the individual needs of every single tree. In reality, it seems like an unattainable dream.
Precision root pruning with drones and automation
Orchard mapping with drones and AI
Yet agricultural machinery leader Kubota, in conjunction with Aurea Imaging, a Dutch start-up developing “crop-intelligence products, has come up with an ingenious solution, the result of some blue-sky thinking. An integrated system using drones equipped with IoT sensors that enable AI analysis and improved decisions can substantially increase the yield of high-value crops such as apples and pears, balancing the multi-year performance of orchards. With the help of Aurea Imaging’s global network of drone pilots, regular and prescriptive tree and fruit surveillance is now only a few clicks away.
Take blossom thinning, for example. Early on in the growing year, manually taking stock and thinning an overabundance of blossoms on those trees with too many flowers is an onerous and time-consuming chore in large-scale orchards. But orchard management can now be assisted by a smart drone which flies over the trees and creates a blossom map. This can, in turn be digitally assessed into a prescription map for the chemical blossomthining of specific trees only, making the process not only faster but more precise and efficient.
In trials conducted by Kubota and Aurea Imaging since 2021, a blossom map created by a drone enabled the farmer to attain full knowledge and control over which trees required the application of blossom thining chemicals.
Large-scale mapping for prescriptive treatment
The drone imaging system can do more as well. The data collcted can also be transformed into vigour maps for growth regulation. Data on canopy height, health and temperature can all be retrieved, assessed and turned into prescribed action carried out by orchard equipment. Focused management such as this can help reduce a farm’s environmental footprint, tackle labour availability and costs, fight diseases and lessen water shortages. It can of course deliver higher yields at lower costs.
Balanced health and tree vigour have high priority in orchard management. Kubota and Aurea Imaging’s drone system can also boost a farmer’s overall control in this regard. Images of early leaf colourisation relayed to the system can identify weakening trees or early signs of disease. Capturing and applying this data at just the right moment can help the farmer deliver treatment to just the trees that need it, saving on labour and fertiliser while achieving the highest fruit yields and quality.
Early imaging for tree health
Another trial conducted by Kubota and Aurea Imaging in an orchard in 2020-2021 enabled a farmer to detect early symptoms of leaf colourisation. This made targeted application of fertiliser in early spring 2021 possible – at a time when the tree is not yet in leaf and a diagnosis of tree health cannot be made. This data made it possible for the farmer to apply fertiliser to the 11% of trees that needed it, saving 89% in contrast to the conventional method, which would have required spreading fertiliser on the entire orchard.
On the other hand, trees in an orchard can become too vigorous, leading to uneven growth and yield. Utilising the drones in mid-season to prepare a canopy/vigour map will allow a farmer to identify which trees require root pruning, resulting in more homogenous overall growth.
The advantages of such high-tech systems are obvious. Being able to achieve a comprehensive diagnosis of all aspects of an orchard – something nearly impossible to do conventionally over the increasing field areas in modern farms – offers multiple benefits to the farmer, as well as everyone else. The amount of labour required, and the difficulty of it, can be substantially reduced. Being able to pinpoint application of chemicals such as fertiliser and blossom thinner means that only the necessary amount of these chemicals are needed for optimum orchard maintenance, which is better for the environment and helps in promoting wild plant and pollinating insect health. And greater yields mean more food for growing populations. Companies such as Kubota and Aurea Imaging, at the vanguard of smart farming, are coming up with increasingly beneficial solutions to farmers’ 21st-century needs.
“The great advantage of the drones, compared to other imaging systems, is that you can do a whole orchard in a short time, with consistent lighting.”
Frans Rijk, Fruit Grower
Frans Rijk runs a 30-hectare orchard in Dronten, Netherlands. He explains that the soil, which was reclaimed from the sea some 70 years ago, was very productive but is becoming inconsistent over time, so trees have started growing at different rates. Here he describes how Aurea Imaging has helped.
“We started to think about making a map of every tree in the orchard so we could then use GPS-controlled tools. The first company we consulted couldn’t help us, but Bert Rijk from Aurea took a personal interest and we started cooperating in 2017. Aurea put in a lot of effort, trying out new cameras, equipment and techniques and they have continued making developments, making the mapping better and better. Aurea is responsible for the equipment and software development; the flying is done by a company called Dronewerkers.
Now they fly over the orchard in July and give me the data, which I can put into my own task maps for root pruning. I do the root cutting the following March. The machine only cuts the roots of the trees that are growing too fast. When you look at the drones for the blossom detection, it is much faster than doing it in person. Of course, the orchard has to be very tidy and all the trees aligned with the GPS locations. But the results are very good.”
UN Sustainability Development Goals
Kubota’s cooperation with Aurea Imaging contributes to the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals of achieving zero hunger, encouraging decent work and economic growth, taking action on climate, protecting life on land, and establishing partnerships to achieve the overall goals.
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