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Drones growing as a tool on California Farms

Bay Area techies aren’t the only ones experimenting with drones and robots. Farmers just a few hours away have begun using the machines to spray crops with pesticides, gather data, track crop health and find water leaks on their land.

These early adopters are among a growing class of farmers who are using emerging robotics technologies in what some researchers believe will balloon from a $3 billion segment of the agriculture industry to a $10 billion market over the next six years.

Central Valley farms and Napa and Sonoma vineyards have become some of the first to experiment with using unmanned flying vehicles to spray pesticides over fields, while other farmers rely on high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging technology to gather data about their crops.

According to a report released last month by research firm IDTechEx, innovations in robotics and technology will alter the way farming is done around the world. Ultra-precision farming will automate tasks humans have been performing for hundreds of years and establish a booming market for agricultural drones that may reach $485 million in the next 10 years.

There are many ways researchers anticipate seeing farmers use robots in the next several years, including vision-enabled robotic weeders, automated fruit harvesters and robotic milking parlors. Sales of milking robots, already a $1.9 billion industry, are expected to grow by nearly $7 billion in the next 10 years.

Some tasks, like fresh-fruit harvesting, are harder to emulate with machines than others, like weeding or pesticide spraying, that don’t require as much of a human touch.

The easiest tasks include “aerial imaging, thermal sensing, getting material, and interpreting sensors to have automated response and collect data,” said David Doll, a farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension. “Weeding, spraying, pruning — all that is probably still five to 10 years off as far as mainstream adoption. ... There’s a lot of potential here.”

But as farmers’ excitement mounts, so does anxiety.

New technologies may minimize labor costs and lessen the strain of state laws — like California’s rising minimum wage and overtime regulations — but it also has the potential to put countless farm laborers out of work.

“I am concerned. We have a lot of longevity and a great group people who work out here,” said Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Co. in the Merced County town of Los Banos. “But when you’re pushed into a situation where you have to deal with California regulations while competing globally with other states and Mexico and Chile, where they don’t have any of the same restrictions, (farmers) have to find ways to streamline our workforce. I want to provide employment for as many people as I can, but the reality is we have to look at cutting people every single year.”

Michael has added a new position to his company this year: a vice president of technology whose job takes him into the fields when there is a new gadget to oversee.

In the last several years, Michael has incorporated a fleet of tractors that drive practically on their own and moved from relying solely on satellite images to monitor his 12,000 acres to flying drones over his land as frequently as once a day to monitor plant growth and crop vitality, and search for areas where gophers tend to chew through his drip irrigation pipes.

Fully and semi-autonomous tractors — the agricultural answer to self-driving cars and trucks — have already begun to move into the mainstream with improved GPS technology and autosteer options that allow farmers to put someone in the tractor, have them press a button and watch as the machine moves from point A to point B on its own.

More than 300,000 such tractors will be sold this year, the IDTechEx study said, and that number is expected to more than double over the next decade.

On Michael’s farms, humans still sit aboard semi-autonomous tractors to monitor equipment, make sure they’re staying on path and directing them around turns from one row of crops to the next. But for the most part, the people are not actually driving.

“It’s a huge focus for us,” Michael said. “We haven’t removed the person from our tractors just yet, but I think we’re getting close. I really envision a time where we have a sensor that can see a weed versus a tomato, and there are a bunch of solar-powered drones in the field that can spray or use a cutting device to chop out the things that aren’t tomatoes and leave the tomatoes alone. I really think that’s where we’re going.”

Drone Deploy, a San Francisco company that sells data analytics and drone photo-imaging software to farmers, has seen demand grow steadily over the past three years.

Farmers who use the software have to have their own drones — and be licensed to fly them. That has become easier since the Federal Aviation Authority streamlined drone licensing last month.

“Farmers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more and more of their innovations are based on real data, but to get data in the field is actually quite hard. That’s where drones come in,” Drone Deploy CEO Mike Wimm said. “When they plant the seed, they know how many they plant. When they harvest the seed, they know how much the harvest is. But to know what’s actually going on during the growing — that’s actually quite hard. The only real way to do it used to be to walk around. But with aerial imagery, you can see what’s happening in real time.”

Many farmers remain hesitant about buying into new technology without demonstrable payoff, experts said.

That’s why Brittany Pederson, a viticulture and pest control adviser for Silverado Farming Co. in Napa, is studying just that: How do drones help farmers and how much money could they save by using them?

Her focus is on pesticide treatment, one of the easiest and most popular uses for farm drones today.

So far, she said, she has tracked only the data from the 2016 season and hopes to do another before making any conclusions. But, she said, the immediate outcome appears to be helping to redistribute workers at a time when vintners and farmers have seen labor shortages.

“There will always be a need for hand labor, and not all vineyards are well suited for these drone sprayers; for some it just doesn’t make economic sense,” she said. “So for the ones where it would work, we can send the drones and have our backpack crew team go elsewhere.”

Doll, who works with farmers across the state, said the biggest benefit he sees to having drones spray farms with pesticides is reducing human exposure to toxic chemicals.

He dismissed the idea that unleashing a fleet of robots to do farm work would put field laborers out of a job.

“You will see a reduction of labor, but that is usually offset with higher-paying jobs, so instead of needing people in the fields, we’ll need people who can work on this new equipment,” he said. “I don’t think it will replace millions of jobs. Some will be lost, but there will be gains in jobs that will be higher-paying.”

Marissa Lang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae

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