Can Drones Help Drought Stricken California?

droughtuav

Some experts say that California is in the midst of a 500-year drought event. Others are going so far as to call it the worst drought in history. While this news means a bad year for the states 38 million residents, fishermen and others that rely on water for their livelihoods, it could mean disaster for the million plus acres of permanent crops already in the ground.

Permanent crops are those crops like trees (fruit and nut) and wine grapes. Unlike cotton, rice or alfalfa they represent a long, multiyear commitment. Trees can take seven years to start producing fruit and If you are the unfortunate grower that is facing losing your trees it means letting go of the prior years of investment. Worse still, starting over with new trees could mean that you will have to go a decade with no income as well as enduring the loss of the planted investments.

The numbers are sobering… the following numbers serve as an example of what is at stake.

Almonds for 2012 –

790,000 acres bearing and 80,000 non-bearing acres with an estimated worth of $4,347,000,000.00. (USDA/NASS, Pacific Region office April 2013) That does not include the loss of income from all of the fruit and nut jobs California depends on.

The almonds alone have increased demands on the public water supply is purported to be at least equal to the amount of water that the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) provides to all of its 18,000,000 customers (2,200,000 acre feet) or 155 gallons per person daily. For those, not in the fluids transfer business…, An acre-foot is equivalent to an acre of land covered in 12” of water.

California has become the nations nut basket, and that is not just a figurative title anymore! ;-)

So dire is the predicted situation in the Golden state that besides the President making a special Valentines day trip to California, the Federal Government has just announced that they are setting aside $20 million dollars to aid farmers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says, “It’ll be focused on improving irrigation efficiency, providing producers resources to stabilize fallowed ground that can’t be farmed and to assist with watering facilities and grazing.” Another $14 million was just pledged to improve water management and conservation finding solutions for efficient irrigation and other drought mitigating technologies and measures to help with soil stabilization. At last count, the total aid to the beleaguered California ag sector tops $100 million. Those affected are calling that tidy sum a drop in the bucket, and that bucket just may have a hole in it.

There were those that expressed concerns and warned that permanent crops may not be the best fit for a state that has historically had to have to endure extended dry and wet cycles. Raising the question, how would permanent crops fare during an extended, or even severe dry cycle? Well, many don’t believe anyone could have envisioned a 500-year event, but here we are. We are faced with the very real dilemma of having to decide if we want to sit on the sidelines and let the bottom fall out of this multibillion-dollar nut basket or, we can decide that we are willing to dare as the generations of Californians that have come before us. Ingenuity and technology brought to bear to overcome adversity and save our economy.

Well, a technology solution already exist, but we cannot use it… Drones.

Currently, farmers water the trees at regular intervals, needed or not. This routine is not scientific, but based on a general schedule, not unlike you might gauge it time to water your lawn.

However, multispectral images can detect plant/tree stress two weeks before you would be able to discern the condition prior to being able to see it with the eye. What does that all mean? In some instances, it can mean non-essential over watering. Relative humidity, soil density/composition, wind and ambient temperature are a few of the many factors that can affect irrigation cycles. You can guess, or you can use an efficient, low cost aerial platform to help conserve this finite resource. You may think this is wishful conjecture, but no… The studies have been done.

There were 600 flight conducted between 2007 and 2009 proved that the use of thermal multispectral cameras on a controlled deficit irrigation study. While it would not cure the ills of this drought on its own it would give farmers more mileage out of what little water they have now. Also in future years it gives the grower a tool to save what will only become even scarcer commodity in the future.

This event requires something that California is used to engineering, and that is a technology solution. While unmanned aircraft cannot tackle the whole problem by themselves, they do represent a viable tool that without a doubt can help better manage a finite resource in real time. A cost effective solution to help save permanent crops from permanent loss. This technology properly applied has the potential to reduce the impact.

A tough nut to crack indeed!

This is a perfect application in a perfect area. Sparsely populated for both the safety of those on the ground and in the air, and these nuts do not give a hoot and a holler about privacy. Shouldn’t we collectively be saying, stop the whining and send in the drones?

Did I win the Million-dollar prize for the best idea to help use water more efficiency? ;-)

 

Previous articleFallen drone found on streets of San Francisco
Next articleSeoul Points to North Korea in Crashed Drones Investigation
Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).