Drones to monitor Oregon potatoes

HERMISTON, Ore. (AP) - The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the use of two remote-controlled aircraft to monitor potato fields in Eastern Oregon.

The aircraft, often referred to as drones, will fly over fields at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center and at a private farm west of Boardman, The Bulletin and East Oregonian newspaper report.

The project comes at a time when interest in the use of unmanned aircraft has risen across the nation, and it involves Boeing, Oregon State University, The U.S. Department of Agriculture and a Bend-based startup called Paradigm.

Equipped with cameras capable of zooming in on a single plant leaf, the suitcase-sized aircraft will take photographs that researchers hope can detect whether plants are getting enough water and fertilizer. If successful, the information will let growers solve problems the human eye might not be able to spot.

"The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly," said Phil Hamm, director of the extension center.

Boeing Research & Technology approached Oregon State University last fall about working on opportunities for the aircraft. The FAA recently approved flying the vehicles up to 400 feet in altitude.

The research station chose potatoes because of the crop's high value. They are also expensive and difficult to grow. Potatoes typically cost Hermiston farmers $4,000 per acre, or about $500,000 for the average crop circle, Hamm said.

The program has yet to raise any privacy concerns in the rural area. Researchers said the drones will be focused on potatoes, not people.

"It's another tool for crop monitoring that allows us to be better at what we do," said Don Horneck, extension agronomist and lead researcher on the project. "We're always looking for those opportunities."

Trial flights will begin as early as Monday, weather permitting, and the program will last until harvest.