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Fresh produce sector ready for the drone?

The drone is becoming ever more popular, both for individuals and in business. Erik Pekkeriet of Wageningen University coordinates the Precision Technology Horticulture Programme, and is involved with developing drone applications for the agricultural sector.

“Using drones is mostly focused on capturing imagery for now. From the air, the drone gives a complete overview of the acreage. This provides a clear, complete view of the growth, health and development of crops. In addition to the complete overview, drones film from far above the crops. This prevents damage that is sometimes caused when you go through them with people or machinery.”

For now, Erik says, it will be limited to capturing footage. “Applying crop protection products would be interesting, but the drones would soon become too heavy. Coordination with equipment is in the pipeline. The drone captures footage, passing on the information to the devices on the ground. Using software and GPS, the machinery can perform actions based on what the drone sees and passes on. That way, the grower can monitor and control cultivation from behind their computer.”

Applications and rules
Development of applications, Erik says, is still mostly limited by finding economically interesting applications and regulation. “Only a handful of companies are allowed to fly with drones. Wageningen University is one of those. For professional and commercial drone flights, two people have to be constantly present who keep an eye on the drone at all times. One is the pilot, the other controls the sensors. And for every flight, government permission is needed. All this takes time, money and manpower.”

In addition to regulation, developing drone applications isn’t cheap. “At the moment, the government is the biggest sponsor of the research, but there’s increasing interest from businesses. Good stability, smooth flight lines and recordings rapidly cost 10,000 euros. But with less stability and good software, a cheaper solution can also be found. In Wageningen, we already showed that you can follow a path and capture images with a 250 euro drone. Depending on the purpose of the footage, such a drone could also be an option. The applications and navigational software in the greenhouse still have to be developed though.”

Greenhouse horticulture
Greenhouse horticulture is ideal for drones. Erik: “Greenhouses are indoors, so no specific regulation applies. The structure of the layout is clear, and distances for the drone are short. And there’s no wind to affect the quality of the imagery. Application in greenhouses is lagging behind a bit though, because few growers are prepared to invest in drones. Growers aren’t rolling in money, and they will have to be convinced of the use of the drones before investing. All in all, not many useful applications have been developed, but there are plenty of ideas on feasible business cases.”

Wageningen University doesn’t build the drones. “We buy the technology and adapt it to our applications, working together with the MAVLAB TU Delft, which has been making great progress developing drones in its aviation department. The main thing is for us to look at the applications of the drones. The most important question: what do we want with it? If there is a specific purpose or question, we can keep working on focused development.”

More informatio:
Wageningen University
Erik Pekkeriet
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