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A New Niche for Commercial Drones: Hemp Industry

drones hemp

AgEagle moves into a new and growing niche for commercial drones: the hemp industry.

AgEagle partners with Florida officials to encourage growth of state’s hemp industry

By DRONELIFE Staff Writer Jim Magill

Two of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. today are the commercial use of drones and the cultivation of hemp as an agricultural crop. AgEagle, a developer of commercial drone technologies and services, is using its expertise in the former industry to advance the development of the latter.

Since November 2019, AgEagle has offered its HempOverview software, which allows hemp growers to manage the online application submission and registration process for their farms. More recently, the company announced an agreement with the state of Florida to expand its use of the software-as-a-service platform in the state to include registration, real-time best management practices, oversight and enforcement, as well as reporting services.

“As hemp started to become a burgeoning new industry — we began to see it boom around 2016-18 — we realized an opportunity to jump into that world as well as assess other various agricultural commodities,” said Steve Turetsky, AgEagle’s director of agriculture solutions.

The company hopes to establish HempOverview, a regulatory product that helps to facilitate the communication between farmers and state auditors and regulators, as the standard communications tool for the hemp industry, at a time when the U.S Agriculture Department is evolving its regulations for the nascent industry, Turetsky said.

“State governments have a responsibility to license and regulate farmers who are growing hemp, with the main intent to prevent the leakage of residual THC into the marketplace, in order to keep hemp as an agricultural commodity, as opposed to a controlled substance,” he said.

HempOverview is designed to be deployed in two phases. Phase one calls for the mapping of fields using geolocated satellite imagery and artificial intelligence algorithms.

“Via satellite, we can alert auditors and state regulators to different nuances with the crop; for example, if a crop has been harvested or not,” Turetsky said. This is important because the state places strict limits on when a hemp crop can be harvested, in order to ensure a low level of THC potency.

“In Phase 2 we’ll looking at using drones for more of a commercial-based solution for hemp farmers,” he said.

One example of these commercial applications could involve the use of drones to limit the number of male plants produced within a hemp crop. Hemp farmers seek to have as many female plants in their crop as possible, as this leads to higher flower density, which in turn leads to a more productive and higher revenue-generating crop.

“You’re typically looking at one in 10,000 males per total plants. It’s really looking for a needle in a haystack,” Turetsky said. Using a drone to survey the field from above, the software can pinpoint the locations of the males, allowing the farmer to cull the unwanted plants.

Turetsky said AgEagle’s data scientists are also working to develop the next generation of software, which would be capable of detecting the THC content of a crop via drone-conducted surveys.

“That is the golden goose,” for the hemp industry, he said. Field tests, in which plants are harvested and tested for THC levels using infrared technology, have been successful, but “whether or not that can be done successfully and accurately with a drone is something we’re still working on. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility.”

Such testing would need to be able to give a precise measurement, as a THC level above 0.3 percent of dry weight could cause state officials to reject an entire crop.

“We’d rather have a solution that hits that level of precision, rather than the gimmicky solution, which is what the IR technology testing is today, and which can give you a ballpark estimate. A ballpark really isn’t that helpful,” Turetsky said.

The company is also integrating some weather data into its HempOverview app, which would analyze growing-degree day algorithms and historical weather data to help hemp farmers grow better crops.

On the regulatory side, AgEagle is currently partnering with the states of Florida and Iowa in the development of new features to its HempOverview platform that would make the regulators’ jobs easier. “We’re able to provide some data to the auditor as to what’s going on with the crops, instead of them having to be out in the field multiple times a year,” Turetsky said.

Florida officials expect the commercial hemp industry to grow substantially in their state. In a statement announcing its agreement with AgEagle, Holly Bell, director of cannabis at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said, “Within the next few years, hemp farming in Florida is expected to represent approximately half the size of the state’s citrus industry – growth that is largely being driven by commercial demand for hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).”

In fact, Turetsky said he sees a great many parallels between the growth of the commercial drone industry and that of the commercial hemp industry. Both industries are going through a period of rapid innovation and development, while at the same time federal officials are working hard to develop a regulatory framework to oversee them.

“I look at the cannabis industry as being five-ish years ahead of the drone industry,” he said.

Drone industry representatives have worked closely with Federal Aviation Administration officials in the development of regulations favorable to the development of commercial applications, such as rules for flying beyond visual line of sight.

Meanwhile the cannabis industry “had to self-regulate for a while before government was ready to unlock the door and let them run,” Turetsky said. “Now as these things start to ease to allow these technologies to flourish, we’re seeing some really cool innovations in both industries.”


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