NEWS / FEATURES

Unmanned Expo

By Nathalie Hardy

An early April conference in Yamhill County designed to assemble local farmers, vineyard operators and experts in the rapidly advancing industry of precision agriculture can’t arrive soon enough for winemaker Ken Wright. He’s looking forward to talking to industry leaders to find solutions to one of his major concerns: a decreasing workforce in a growing industry.

That kind of discussion is exactly what Jeff Lorton had in mind when he organized the two-day Precision Farming Expo, Oregon’s first major precision farming event, April 2 at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville.

Lorton, who owns the Duke Joseph Agency based in Carlton, is currently working under contract with Yamhill County as its economic development director. However, he is organizing the event under his agency’s umbrella, independent of the county and one of the expo’s sponsors.

With help from Yamhill County Commissioner Allen Springer, the county’s economic development liaison, Lorton started exploring what the advance of precision agriculture could mean locally. Since then, the two have cultivated relationships creating new opportunities to benefit local farmers as well as the economy.

For instance, Lorton says the expo will encourage industry experts and local farmers to discuss specific needs as well as give industry experts interested in Yamhill County a chance to scout the area as a possible place to relocate, bringing jobs and money with them.

Lorton and the commissioners think the county is ideally suited to capitalize on the emerging drone industry. Given its rich agricultural base, the county could become a hub for manufacture and development as well as use, creating new opportunities and possibilities for farmers, students, manufacturers, software companies, industry leaders and entrepreneurs in the heart of wine country.

“Farming is beginning to look less like the The Grapes of Wrath and more like Star Wars,” Lorton said. This trend will be on display at the expo, where many of the influential leaders in unmanned systems, robotics and farm automation will be in attendance.

Lorton says farming is one of the final American occupations to leave the analog era. Robots that harvest lettuce, drones that spot bugs from the sky and wireless soil monitors that send moisture notifications to smartphones are just the beginning of what’s to come. A catch-all definition for this data-driven revolution is “precision agriculture.”

Oregon, which recently became one of the states awarded civilian drone test sites, is already home to developers who believe aerial robots can be tasked with data gathering to increase agricultural yields and detect diseases before they can be seen by the human eye.

Interest from the agriculture industry soared in March when a ruling by a National Transportation Safety Board judge effectively killed the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on commercial use of small drones.

“The ruling opens the skies for farmers who want to fly drones over their fields, and sparked interest by angel investors who are scrambling to find and fund the best of the new unmanned aerial system innovators,” Lorton said, adding how the county is poised to capitalize on that interest.

The expo will feature a range of speakers, including Young Kim, general manager of BOSH Precision Agriculture and a national leader in UAV-based agriculture — Kim also spoke last December at the conference sponsored by the county.

Ken Wright noted he is particularly interested in seeing the debut of Wall-YE the vineyard robot that will give those in attendance the first robot pruning demonstration on American soil. Created by French engineer/inventor Christophe Millot, Wall-YE is an unmanned ground vehicle with capabilities to gather and record data, memorize the vineyard, synchronize multiple cameras, and use its arms to tackle tasks such as pruning and removing suckers.

Wright says robotics could revolutionize the wine industry and address its current challenges, and it can’t happen soon enough for him.

“Really, robotics could save the industry,” Wright said. “The labor shortage is a big problem, and it’s getting worse.” Wright, who is responsible for 200 acres on 13 vineyards of primarily fragile Pinot Noir grapes, added, “When labor availability is dictating your harvest plan, that’s a problem.

“The reality is the children of our field workers are not choosing to follow in their parents’ footsteps,” he continued. “It’s becoming increasingly noticeable now, at times when we need the most people,” he said, noting the last three years have been increasingly difficult.

Wright sees the upcoming expo as a chance to work collaboratively with those developing the technology.

“I think that’s awesome to know we could have some influence in how the technology is developed for our industry,” he said. “The technology seems to be there, it’s a matter of getting the right people in the room so those people developing the technology understand what our needs are,” Wright said. “This conference is an opportunity for that exchange of information to happen.”

Tickets to the expo are still available. For more information, visit www.precisionfarmingexpo.com.

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