Drone Tech for Hemp Crops

by | Aug 2, 2021

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

Drone technology is helping farmers get more done with less labor and for less money. For hemp farmers, the story is no different.

CropTracker predicts drone tech in agriculture will grow from a $1.2 billion(USD) industry in 2019 to a $4.8 billion one in 2024. With hemp now legally cultivated across the US thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, drone technology will play a key role in making this a viable crop in a highly competitive and still volatile immature market.

For hemp farmers, drone tech offers a way to spot disease, stress, and drought across acres of plants in a fraction of the time it would take to inspect manually. New innovations are also incorporating drone-captured data into compliance reporting. And, at least one company has combined IPM methodology with drones for pest control.

Drones for Compliance in Hemp Cultivation

Across the US, hemp farmers are struggling under the burden of compliance protocols. Companies like AgEagle are working drones into compliance measures to help reduce the reporting burden and costs.

AgEagle’s HempOverview program combines map-based aerial imaging technology with an easy-to-use web-based interface. Through this interface, everyone of importance throughout the supply chain can connect, communicate, and collaborate on compliance. That means everyone from growers to regulators to distributors.

Using drone technology, HempOverview can help cultivators stay on top of required reporting. For example, this platform reports accurate planting and harvest dates, provides status updates on crop loss, issues accurate planting reports, and details crop boundary changes.

This kind of data allows both farmers and regulators to save time in the field while still providing near-real-time updates. In addition, by opening up an easy channel of communication through the dashboard, regulators can request specifics directly from farmers when needed.

Drones for Crop Intelligence and Monitoring

In all areas of large-scale agriculture, drones are becoming a critical tool for cultivators. With the ability to fly over acres of plants in a short period, drones reduce the labor needed to monitor the fields for stress, drought, disease, and other issues. Drones are also getting put to work in the hemp field, helping farmers catch up after decades of lost technological development during the era of prohibition.

Many drone companies serving traditional ag industries have pivoted to cover hemp. Sky Sense and SenseFly are only two examples. Using a variety of mapping tools and layers of sensors, drones can quickly scope a field of hemp to pinpoint specific issues

SenseFly drone tech for hemp spot checks for nutrient deficiencies, scouts for areas of issue, and provides yield estimates. Sky Sense’s 4K cameras and multispectral sensors monitor stress to help reduce the risk of a THC spike, spot male plants to reduce pollination risk and help cultivators target disease before it becomes a crop-wide issue.

Drones for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for Hemp

Parabug combines drone technology with IPM. For crops like hemp, which are grown under stringent protocols on which few pesticides, if any, can be applied, IPM is often one of the only tools to combat problematic pests. One of the main tactics used in IPM is predatory pests to reduce the populations of the insects eating the crop.

However, the application and management of these predatory insects are extraordinarily labor-intensive and often not feasible for large-scale hemp farms.

Enter Parabug. The Parabug drone, operated by a certified drone pilot, works from data mapping provided by the farmer. The drone can release any number of predatory insects, including larvae, mites, and even fragile parasitoids, across a large area. A single drone in a single day can cover upwards of 500 acres. According to Parabug, this reduces the costs associated with IPM by upwards of 80 percent.

As a drone project originally developed to release biocontrol agents (pest predators) over fields of strawberries, the possible applications for Parabug across the agriculture sector are immense. The company is already working with CBD hemp producers, like Harris Farms in Nevada, to spread occidentalis predatory mites to combat both spider and russet mites.

Drone Tech a Pivotal Piece of Modern Hemp Agriculture

Large-scale hemp cultivation must take advantage of cost- and time-saving technologies to turn a profit. Drone tech can aid farmers as they essentially learn the nuances of profiting off a new crop on the go. One drone can help monitor hundreds of acres of hemp in a single session, a task that would take orders of magnitude longer for a team of people on the ground.

Drone technology pioneered in other ag sectors is helping hemp cultivators glean a competitive edge, cut costs, and catch serious crop issues long before they impact harvest. Just as importantly, they may soon help farmers reduce the reporting burden associated with such a highly regulated crop.

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