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A food blog from NHPR news, digital, & programming staff, exploring food & food culture around the state & the New England region. On-air features air Thursdays on All Things Considered and Saturdays during Weekend Edition.

Could Drones Help Protect Apple Orchards From Disease?

Rachel Rohr
Courtesy UNH

One of the challenges apple growers face is a fungal disease known as apple scab. New research at the University of New Hampshire might yield a better approach to preventing its spread – an approach, by the way, that includes the use of special imaging cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAV’s or drones.

Dr. Kirk Broders is assistant professor of plant pathology at UNH. He tells All Things Considered host Brady Carlson that while apple scab doesn't affect flavor, "in many cases [affected apples are] unmarketable. Then farmers have to use fungicides to prevent these scabby apples from happening. This can lead to multiple fungicide applications through the course of the year, and of course consumers are also not terribly excited about multiple fungicide applications."

The UNH research is aimed at preventing the spread of apple blight and other disease, and, by extension, limiting the need for spraying fungicide on apple trees. This includes developing a better model to predict when fungal spores are in the air, so that farmers only spray when - and where - it will make a difference. "Potentially we want to use the UAV to actually scout entire orchards to pick up any small infection points that we may have missed in those initial fungicide applications. And then we can target individual trees or an individual portion of the orchard where the disease is present."

Broders says previous aircraft for farm management has been much larger and more expensive; his hope is to create something smaller and more cost-effective for smaller farmers. "There's this whole community that has popped up around these UAVs," Broders says, "so the advancements are being made very rapidly." The big open question, he says, is what policies the Federal Aviation Administration may develop around drone aircraft for civilian applications. If the FAA allows for UAV use in orchard management, though, Broders says he's hoping to see UAVs for farmers potentially in the next three to five years. 

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