California farmers harness drones to save water

In the arid West, pioneering California farmers are using drones to add another layer of precision to their use of irrigation water, says The Associated Press. One of the pioneers, Cannon Michael, of Bowles Farming Co. in Los Banos, has mounted a thermal camera on a drop to spot leaks from underground irrigation pipes — color variations indicate different amounts of moisture in the soil.

Michael, who grows vegetables, cotton and almonds on 17 square miles of land, says the thermal camera allowed him to conserve enough water on his 2,400 acres of tomatoes to supply 550 households for a year. Drones are relatively inexpensive, says AP, but growers usually are comfortable with rudimentary tasks for the airborne equipment, such as using video or infrared cameras to spot plants in trouble from disease, pests or lack of nutrients. (For more on Michael, check out FERN’s 2015 story, “Battling Drought on a California Farm.”)

The FAA eased the rules on drone operators on Monday. If a drone weighs less than 55 pounds, the operator takes a written test and pays a fee to get a drone license, rather than the previous requirement of obtaining a pilot’s license. Brandon Stark of UC-California at Merced says the change in rules will make drones, and the technology that is being developed with them, attractive tools for farmers.