Drivers passing by the 200-acre Nickels Soil Lab research farm in Arbuckle, Calif., might wonder if Big Brother is watching as a small drone helicopter with a camera sometimes flies above the tree line in the experimental almond and walnut orchards.

Big Brother is not at work. Instead, precision agriculture specialists are developing the latest technology to find future solutions for crop water-challenged growers in Western U.S. agriculture.

The drone copter, manufactured by MiKroKopter, measures canopy reflectance in the tree nut orchards as part of a three-year, Western state precision agriculture project called, “Precision Canopy and Water Management Study in Specialty Crops Using Sensor-Based Decision Making.”

At the project’s core is discovering solutions for ever tightening and costly water supplies in the West and how cutting-edge technologies can help specialty crop growers produce more crop with less water.

Shrini Upadhyaya is the project leader and a machinery systems engineering professor at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) in Davis.

The project addresses a very challenging task, Upadhyaya says. In the next 10 years, the challenge is to produce 21 percent more food with about 17 percent less water, according to some experts.

The challenge is part of the overall need to feed a burgeoning global population expected to jump from about 7 billion people today to more than 9 billion people by 2050.  

The three-year precision agriculture project is funded through a $2.59 million USDA specialty crops grant. It draws the expertise of precision technology specialists in five western states. Five universities are involved, including UC Davis, the University of Arizona, New Mexico State University, Oregon State University, and Washington State University.

Researchers from these institutions - plus Trimble, Veris Technologies, AgInformatics, and other commercial businesses - are among the 24 project investigators, plus support researchers.


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The project, soon to enter its third year, is designed to improve canopy and water management in almonds, walnuts, pecans, and grapes, plus other specialty crops in the future. The emphasis involves the latest developments in precision agriculture technology.

“The long-term goal of this project is to establish the basis for precise management of specialty crops at levels currently unattainable with satellite-based and aerial sensing,” Upadhyaya says.

In the area of water management, the objective is to determine precisely how much water plants truly need and then implement a targeted irrigation regime to deliver exact amounts of water while also boosting yields.