Coffee farmers and cattle ranchers are taking to the skies to control their crops and animals, using drones to not only spray fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on their plants, but also to assess their health and even locate stray cattle.

The technology has been identified as a viable alternative to many labor-intensive processes on agricultural lands, able to do everything from weed control to helping farmers predict seasonal harvest yields and plant health.

But Hawaii is lagging behind on implementing the technology, one which proponents and agricultural insiders say could help alleviate many of the issues farmers face across the state. The expense of purchasing and operating the drones, despite their increasing affordability, is holding the state back from fully investing.

The number of farms in Hawaii regularly using drone technology remains small, according to Suzanne Shriner, executive director of the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council.

The Kona coffee farmer says that within the council’s membership – which represents the macadamia nut, coffee, papaya and floriculture industries – there is a lot of interest from a labor standpoint but it is still “new” technology for farmers.

Drones have been underutilized in Hawaii but the potential is there, experts say. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

High labor costs and labor availability are considered among the greatest hurdles for farmers in Hawaii. Further considering inflation, supply chain issues and the high cost of fuel, proponents say drones could be a long-term solution.

According to Shriner, who is also president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, there are just three or four coffee farms regularly using drones in her region due to cost and interest. A 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that 182 drones were being used in Hawaii’s agricultural sector overall, but another 872 were wanted.

Drone Services Hawaii, which was started in 2014, has a long list of clients in the fields of engineering and environmental services, damage assessment and thermal imagery. But agriculture remains a small part of its work, according to owner Mike Elliot.

The global drone services market is expected to grow to $63.6 billion by 2025, according to Business Insider, and part of that industry is agriculture.

In 2019, Elliot performed drone services for Dole in Hawaii, as part of a University of Hawaii study, which essentially canvassed a pineapple farm’s fruit to see which were flowering — a key process for quality control. The result was that hours of work assessing thousands of plants was achieved in seconds.

“On the ag side, there’s just so much that’s being done and has been done,” Elliot said. “It really helps farmers become proactive rather than reactive.”

Meeting Future Demand

Kauai Coffee General Manager Fred Cowell foresees technology like drones, which he has been using since 2017, as the future for technologically integrated agriculture.

Cowell acknowledges that technologies like drones, whether airborne or land-based, could also fundamentally change how people interact with farms.

The “internet of things” concept — that physical, technological objects, such as phones and watches, interact with each other — will get to a point of being “the internet of farm” where sensory technology exchanges information, Cowell says.

“We’re not going to really have ag workers per se,” Cowell said. “We’re going to have ag technicians, based on what kind of work they are doing.”

University of Hawaii Hilo recognized the promise of drones’ commercial use in 2018, when it signed off on the launch of its aeronautical sciences program. Perhaps not as well publicized as its commercial pilot track was a commercial aerial information technology stream and an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Certificate.

Multispectral images taken from drones can inform farmers about how their plants are growing. These patterns of wheat growth are informed by sowing machinery driving around power poles, which are in the red zones. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Those two courses would prepare students to operate, maintain and innovate, as well as interpret the data for commercial purposes, but the course is not currently accepting students due to lack of staffing.

The course is awaiting a potential $190,000 cash infusion from the state this year to hire two “sorely needed” full-time, tenure eligible instructors, according to Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Kristen Roney.

So far, the first class has yet to graduate but all signs point to a pilot-focused cohort, as students choose their specializations in the second-to-last year of study.

“While it is limited now, it is one of the areas in which I can see significant future growth,” Roney said.

It’s not just agriculturally applicable. The technology can be used in conservation work, marine sciences with the inclusion of submersible drones, geology and engineering, she said.

“The geography and range of climate zones on the island provide such incredibly diverse conditions and — again — disciplinary application that it is tough to imagine a better place to learn to control and apply the technology,” Roney said.

While staff will keep the program afloat and help it prove itself for the future, more investment is needed for the program to thrive, according to Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Management.

The program’s prospective $190,000 appropriation pales in comparison to programs that have been launched around the country, as the level of investment in similar subjects in the continental U.S. are in the millions of dollars, appropriated by state governments or other foundations.

“There’s no money really to support what is needed in terms of UAS robotics,” Mathews said. “We don’t have any drones with anything other than small cameras.”

And though the pilots’ track will soon benefit from flight simulators, received as part of a state allocation, there have been no similar appropriations for unmanned aircraft. The first step remains faculty who can prove the course’s worth, Roney says.

“We want students to have every advantage they deserve, and certainly what we do invest will have a considerable effect on future enrollments,” Roney said.

Democratizing The Drone

Elliot of Drone Services Hawaii says drones have been underutilized around the state — perhaps except for the military — and have been considered “toys” rather than specialized pieces of equipment.

Such equipment comes with a heavy price tag, which Elliot estimates hovers around the $50,000 mark. And while that price makes it entirely unaffordable for the 4,000-odd farms in Hawaii earning less than $10,000 yearly, proponents envision collective and cooperative agreements being struck by small farmers to gather data on several farms at once.

“Ten different farms. One 100-acre flight makes a lot more sense,” Elliot said.

Given the work’s technicality and required knowhow, Shriner of the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council says contracted drone services could be the future too, as it requires no investment or upkeep for the farmer.

“The thought of having to repair a drone that accidentally hit a tree is absolutely out of my comfort region,” Shriner said.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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