Montana Looks to Drones for Weed Control

Montana is not one of the nation’s leading drone states.  The Virginia-based Mercatus Center, which ranks all 50 states, places Montana fairly low, at #18.  Geography would seem to favor the Big Sky State which has more acres of farmland than any other state except Texas.  But Montana lacks the powerful stakeholder support one finds in North Dakota (#1) or Oklahoma (#4)  which are designated drone test sites receiving tens of millions of dollars in federal development funding.  In fact, not long ago a Montana state legislator – anxious to protect the state’s airspaces and its citizens’ privacy rights  – pushed for an outright drone ban.  While the measure failed, even now, state and local ordinances restricting drone flights remain.

But industry pushback is growing, largely because Montana’s huge and growing weed problem threatens its lucrative farm crops, especially wheat, much of it produced for export to Canada and more recently, China, the world’s leading wheat importer.  A looming trade deal with China could allow for a major new boom in Montanta’s wheat industry.  But in addition to persistent challenges posed by droughts, the state’s wheat growers need to reduce their farm management costs, which include a whopping – and prohibitive – $60 per acre for herbicides alone.

How could drones help?  First, by better identifying and tracking the 30 highly noxious and invasive weed species that continue to threaten the state’s wheat crop, allowing for early intervention and remediation of distressed areas.  Some of the most innovative agricultural drones come equipped with sensor technology that can survey farmlands from above and quickly identify weed-choked areas  (as well as pests and blights).

The next phase is the actual herbicide spraying.  Currently, Montana’s farmers waste enormous time, money and labor spraying their farms with foot crews, which are slow moving, or with small manned aircraft, which tend to spray their chemicals far too widely.  One small drone company that began offering “precision” weed management to Montana’s farmers as far back as 2014, estimated that it could survey the herbicide needs of large farms in a matter of several minutes, with far fewer chemicals, while current methods might take 10 times as long and cost 5 times as much.

Past studies have suggested that drones may not always outperform crop spraying conducted by more traditional methods.  The reason?  Drones can only fly continuously for roughly 20-30 minutes, so on large farm properties they could need constant recharging to complete the job; and with their relatively small payload capacity, they are limited in how much herbicide they can disperse in a single run. But even drone skeptics acknowledge that manned and unmanned systems could work effectively in tandem.  Drones could identify spots missed by conventional weed control and then follow up with highly targeted site-specific spraying in patches where earlier herbicide applications fell short.

Montana is well aware of the need for improved weed control.  In response to the growing challenge, there’s a weed “district” in each of the states’ 56 counties to assist farmers to devise more effective weed management plans.  And last June, Montana State University (MSU) sponsored the state’s first ever “boot camp” which reviewed the latest drone sensor technologies available to test soil quality and identify crops at various stages of distress. The week-long camp, attended by ranchers and students from across the state, also presented techniques for integrating drone pesticide and herbicide spraying as well as crop planting and even cultivation into more conventional manned operations.

And that’s just the beginning.  This fall, recognizing the burgeoning interest in the topic, MSU is laying the foundation for a new curriculum and eventually a four-year degree program in what’s come to be known as “precision” agriculture – the first of its kind in the nation.

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