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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Agriculture

Spokane Ag Show showcases advancements in drones for farmers

The DJI Agras T-30 drone from Red Iron Air is on display during the Spokane Ag Expo at the Convention Center on Thursday, Feb 9, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
The DJI Agras T-30 drone from Red Iron Air is on display during the Spokane Ag Expo at the Convention Center on Thursday, Feb 9, 2023. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Alongside airplane-sized tractors and combine harvesters on display inside the Spokane Convention Center this week was a smaller technology with many creative uses: drones.

The Spokane Ag Expo, the Northwest’s largest agriculture trade show, was a chance for thousands of professionals to network and learn from industry experts about the latest innovations. A couple of vendors who attended, advertised modern methods for killing weeds.

Agcopter, based in The Dalles, Oregon, specializes in mapping fallow fields for weeds.

Sensors and software on Agcopter’s drones identify the weeds and create a precise map of their location. Farmers can then feed that data into existing, on-the-ground rigs to efficiently spray those weeds with herbicide. Spot spraying allows farmers to target only the weeds instead of the entire field.

This can save input costs, but it also slows plants from developing herbicide resistance and reduces chemical residue in the soil.

A few booths away, another company showed off its fleet of drones used for a different purpose.

Instead of high-tech mapping, Red Iron Air sprays herbicides and pesticides directly, replacing airplane crop-dusters. Based in Simms, Montana, the company services states across the Northwest.

President Taylor Woods said it is more affordable for small farms where it is hard to hire a pilot to service lower acreage.

Drones excel in reaching rugged terrain where it would be difficult for a helicopter to reach and impossible for an airplane, Woods said. They typically spray between 3 to 7 feet over the crop canopy.

Unmanned drones are also safer than low-flying crop-dusters, which crash occasionally.

“The areas we are applicating, there is just no human risk,” Woods said.

Red Iron’s T-30 Agras, built by Chinese manufacturer DJI, is the largest drone approved for dispensing chemicals.

The 90-pound drone is capable of carrying an 8-gallon payload plus a 30-pound battery. With six arms and 12 props, the wingspan is just over 12 feet.

Woods said drones are getting larger every year. A newer model is capable of carrying 10 gallons and spraying well over 50 acres an hour, but the FCC hasn’t approved it yet.

“We’re just patiently waiting for them to sign off.”

Woods came to agriculture through forestry, where he uses drones to spray, then reseed skid trails left by logging units.

Another use of the equipment is aerial seeding. This can be done with some legumes like alfalfa, but it is mostly used for seeding sagebrush and native grasses. These plants can help prevent soil erosion, especially after a wildfire.

Some farmers have been hesitant to adopt the new technology.

“Drones definitely make people nervous,” Woods said. “A lot of the older producers are not a fan of drones. Biggest thing we realized, if we can get our foot in the door with people willing to give us a shot, by the end of the day their neighbors want us to come over. After four years of applicating, it works.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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