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Tuesday, Feb 04 2014 11:00 PM

EILEEN SHIBLEY: Historic drought emphasizes need for precision watering

As our leaders fight for immediate relief for the millions of residents -- including the bulk of California's critical agriculture industry -- in the face of our drought crisis, the leaders in the forefront of the precision agriculture movement are addressing the importance of precision water as part of our long-term solution in effectively and efficiently managing what is arguably our most precious resource: water.

Even in the midst of our crisis, many farmers are still watering their crops through flood irrigation, which constitutes huge water losses through evaporation.

One petition currently being passed around on Change.org cites a study that estimates as much as 6 million acre feet of water lost annually through this practice. Precision-watering systems reduce this number to zero.

But we believe this is an opportunity for Kern County to demonstrate its historically innovative and business-savvy capabilities by embracing the precision-watering model.

Many Kern County growers -- including our pistachio farmers -- have already made the leap to a system of plastic tubes that drip water directly to individual plants.

What modern technology affords us today is the ability to keep a persistent stare overhead to monitor the drip system. What we did with satellites in the 1970s, and with aircraft in the 1980s and 1990s, we can now achieve with small, low-flying autonomous robots today.

The modern system harnesses state-of-the-art, multi-spectral cameras in a custom airframe that operates on autopilot, making them both affordable and highly operable by landowners.

The feedback generated by these systems translates this information to what knobs to turn and how much to turn them.

We believe this high-tech solution may be one of the keys in weathering our drought without catastrophic neglect of our rich farmland.

While the technology can be viewed as merely an improvement -- both in terms of capability and accessibility -- on tried-and-true methods, the truly revolutionary component is in empowering the grower to catalog a daily series of maps that analyze real-time needs of crops.

This technology has been proven to be effective in many foreign countries, most of which have more flexibility for flying commercial unmanned systems. (We are currently waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration's rules for small systems, which have been in the works for six years).

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study calculated staggering benefits in time, energy, fuel and pesticide by leveraging precision agriculture methods, but given California's longest and driest spell in recorded history, it could also be the key in our plan for long-term sustainability in water use.

Agricultural needs account for about 70 percent of our global water demand. Any solution for water conservation must address our farming practices. I believe we have a unique opportunity in Kern County -- home to some of the greatest assets for ag and technology -- to work together to put this systems into play. I think Kern County can put something into place that will be a model for California, and the country.

Eileen Shibley , of Ridgecrest, is the executive director of Cal UAS, California's private test and research center for unmanned vehicle systems. She ran the unmanned systems program for the U.S. Navy at China Lake as part of her 30-plus years working for the Department of Defense.

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