Once the use of drones is perfected, Magnolia Gardens Nursery plans to take full advantage of this unusual growing and marketing tool.
While the labor dilemma continues in the green industry, grower-retailers look to technology to help with some production methods. Drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles) are poised to become an important high-tech helper in greenhouses and nurseries once their accompanying software is perfected.
However, they’re worth trying, and they currently work well for marketing and other tasks, says Neil Marek, general manager of Magnolia Gardens Nursery’s tissue culture division. Marek became interested in drones as a hobby several years ago, and he’s moved that pastime into the nursery.
“I was flying them just for fun, taking pictures and videos,” he says. “Then in 2012, I started building them. Since then, it’s become a nursery tool.”
About a year ago, Marek listened to a podcast about drones in the nursery industry by James Robbins, an extension professor at the University of Arkansas. Robbins discussed the possibilities of using drones for inventory management and plant health monitoring.
“The software for counting and inventory management isn’t quite where it needs to be, but it will get there,” Marek says. “Right now, drones can probably count about 80 percent of your [plants], depending on location and spacing. With certain beds, especially those with good spacing, drones can count inventory pretty well.”
It’s worth the wait and will be a valuable greenhouse tool, Marek says.
“In our container operation, we have two full-time employees and two or three helpers who do nothing but count and organize. There’s definitely a need for automated counting,” he adds. “I can easily justify the training time and resources for an investment like a drone.”
Currently, Marek uses his drone to perform greenhouse roof inspections.
“We can do roof inspections on our greenhouses, which is helpful with our 20-foot gutters. The drone can spot a problem before we send someone up there,” he explains.
He also uses the drone for marketing purposes by taking dynamic video of the nursery and using it on social media and at trade shows.
“I play the videos as marketing tools at trade shows. It’s an interesting way to present yourself and your product, instead of a bunch of still photos. It grabs people’s attention, and that’s what you want at a trade show,” he says. “I also have a tiny one that I built — about 3 inches across — that I fly around the booth at the trade shows. I have a video receiver that can be hooked up to the TV, and I shoot live video. I’ve even gotten some new customers because they stopped at the booth to watch the drone video.”
Eventually, drones will be used to monitor plant health and water use management, Marek predicts.
“That’s being done now in ag crops such as sugar cane,” he says. “As companies see that these tools are successful in large ag operations, they’ll adapt them for nursery production.”
Drones would be an excellent complement to workers who scout greenhouses.
“If you can buzz over your entire nursery in an hour or less, and it can point you to some trouble spots, it’s a must-have tool,” he says. “The more quickly you can get your skilled personnel to that problem to do a diagnosis and treatment, the better your crop will be.”
For garden centers that are ready to try out this technology, Marek says to expect to pay $1,000 or $1,500 for a good model. And an off-the-shelf unit should meet most grower-retailers’ needs.
Look for a model with a camera stabilization option, as well as GPS and return-to-home options, he says. He also suggests buying a unit with altitude hold, which allows the drone to hover in place if the pilot takes their hands off the controller.
Newer models typically come with collision avoidance, but that keeps you from flying the drone inside a greenhouse, he says.
He also suggests having at least one employee who will be certified to fly it, and fully understands the safety aspects of operating a drone. Finally, he says, have some fun with it, too.
“They’re not only useful, but fun,” he says. “I think they’re simple to fly, and with an hour or so of practice, you’re going to be able to fly it pretty well. It does take some good eye-hand coordination. I think we’ll see more and more of them being used in nurseries, and soon they’ll become a standard nursery tool.”