Weed farmers are using drones as crop cops

Plant monitoring, data collection, and security—here's how cannabis farmers use drones
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· 5 min read

The 21st-century farmer’s toolkit goes beyond tractors, balers, and mowers. Nowadays, it frequently includes drones too.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can help with a slew of farm tasks, from crop dusting to crop monitoring. The market for commercial agricultural drones is projected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2020 to $5.7 billion by 2025, per Markets and Markets.

And in the fast-growing world of cannabis farming specifically, the tech is widely used for security as well as crop monitoring, according to cultivators we spoke with. Some companies, like Houston-based drone startup Hylio, are looking to push into the cannabis space with crop-spraying drones too—a common use case among farmers in general—though the company hasn’t yet progressed beyond the demo stage with a cannabis company, and growers say that application is unusual for now.

Samantha Mikolajewski, cultivation manager at medical-cannabis cultivator at Maitri Genetics, told Emerging Tech Brew that because the company is focused on medical marijuana—and therefore grows indoors, to allow for full control over the process—drones aren’t used. But in a previous role at Good Buds Co, a 17-acre outdoor, recreational cultivation site in Canada, she used drones for crop monitoring.

“On a year-to-year basis, getting those high-quality photographs and timelapses really allowed us to monitor microclimates and assess areas where other cultivars would be more applicable to those microclimates,” Mik said. “If we have higher pest pressure or lower plant health in different areas, we would be able to see that [with drones].”

For Flora Growth, an all-outdoor cannabis company based in Colombia and traded on the Nasdaq, drones are commonly used for security and data collection, Jason Warnock, the company’s chief revenue officer, told us. Warnock said it’s the cannabis-industry standard to at least use drones for security.

“I think almost every grower uses drones, primarily to make assessments of their property, the security, having a good sense of all the positions around their facilities,” Warnock explained, adding that it’s particularly useful for large grows.

He also said he’s seen a lot of anti-drone technology in use, because growers are concerned about snooping or the infestation of their plants by a drone unwittingly carrying in pests.

“Because cannabis itself is very persnickety, it’s very delicate for a weed, growers are very, very, almost secretive—and protective—to not let any foreign...pathogen enter the space, including through drones,” Warnock said. “I’ve seen companies taking efforts, as much as having technologies, to take drones out of the sky.”

Arthur Erickson, CEO of Hylio, told us that while no cannabis companies have bought its drones yet, Hylio has demoed the tech for one. Hylio is pre-seed and only began selling its drones early last year, but it has trialed with more than 500 clients from small- and medium-sized farmers to large-scale corporate farms and agricultural service providers. So far, they’ve shipped about 120 drones.

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GPS and real-time kinematic (RTK) sensors keep its drones fenced into the parameters set by the farmer, traveling autonomously to spray their assigned sections of the field. The drone returns to its starting point when it’s done or if it needs a refill of herbicide or pesticide, which normally happens every eight to nine minutes.

Previously, in order to reach some of these trickier spots, farmers either had to drag spraying rigs across the ground, which can not only trample crops, but also compact the soil and lessen air flow, or fly overhead with helicopters or planes, which can only spray general areas.

Because Flora Growth is an organic operation, it does not use—and has no plans to use—drones for crop spraying, Warnock said. It relies instead on integrated pest management, a pest-fighting approach that leans on more environmentally friendly tactics, like using banker plants—plants that attract predators that will eat up your cash crop’s pest. Flora Growth also plants red beans every time it harvests its cannabis plants to maintain soil quality, as another example.

And Mik said that while crop-spraying drones definitely have certain useful horticultural and agricultural applications, she believes it’s “much more beneficial to try and find species of banker plants that benefit the cash crop that you’re growing. That kind of use of science and our understanding of the natural world is ultimately safer to the environment and also more economical than overhead spraying of pesticides.”

As the space grows and farmers look to gain an edge on one another, it’s possible more cultivators will look to solutions like Hylio’s drones. Erickson expects comfort levels with the tech to grow as cannabis becomes legal in more areas.

“My personal take is that [cannabis growers] are proceeding cautiously because growing cannabis itself is already a contentious regulatory zone,” Erickson said. “Using drones also comes with a whole other set of regulations that you need to abide by. I think the cannabis leads are kind of waiting to have all their ducks in a row before pulling the trigger on too much drone stuff.”

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