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Drones Carry Spanish Producers Into the Next Era of Olive Farming

Spain's Atlas experimental flight center furnishes drone technology that is changing how producers approach olive farming.

Oct. 1, 2017
By Veronica Pamoukaghlian

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For­ever asso­ci­ated with culi­nary plea­sures rich in qual­ity olive oil, Spain devotes 2.5 mil­lion hectares of land to olive groves. In some regions, each com­mer­cial olive tree has its own GPS coor­di­nates to track and mon­i­tor this pre­cious resource. As the leader in the world­wide mar­ket for EVOO, Spain is also on the cut­ting edge when it comes to new olive farm­ing tech­nolo­gies.

Tra­di­tional olive cul­ti­va­tion and ultra-mod­ern farms coex­ist in Jaén, which makes the region an ideal set­ting for tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments.- Anas­ta­sio Sánchez, Atlas Exper­i­men­tal Flight Cen­ter

With a pro­duc­tion of over 1.5 mil­lion tons per year, half of which comes from the province of Jaén, Spain has known olive farm­ing since Roman times. The ancient dwellers of the Iber­ian Penin­sula might have never imag­ined an army of drones hov­er­ing over crops to ensure olives grow to per­fec­tion, but this seem­ingly futur­is­tic vision con­sti­tutes Jaén’s thriv­ing present.

To learn more about Spain’s lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments as applied to olive groves, Olive Oil Times spoke with Anas­ta­sio Sánchez, direc­tor of the Atlas Exper­i­men­tal Flight Cen­ter in Vill­car­rillo, Jaén.

What does ATLAS do, and how is its work rel­e­vant to olive oil pro­duc­tion in Spain?

The Atlas Exper­i­men­tal Flight Cen­ter offers the inter­na­tional aero­nau­ti­cal com­mu­nity an aero­drome equipped with tech­no­log­i­cal facil­i­ties and ser­vices of excel­lence and air­space suit­able for con­duct­ing flight tests with unmanned air­craft sys­tems (UAS / RPAS, com­monly known as drones”). Its pio­neer­ing infra­struc­ture is unique in Spain and Europe.

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Anastasio Sánchez

Atlas will play a cen­tral role dur­ing the UNVEX Eco-Agro con­fer­ence, to be held from Octo­ber 9th to 11th in Seville and at the Atlas Cen­ter. This event will be a kind of national sum­mit on the appli­ca­tion of drones for agri­cul­ture and envi­ron­men­tal projects. It will focus on pro­mot­ing the appli­ca­tion of new tech­nolo­gies to improve pro­duc­tiv­ity and com­pet­i­tive­ness in agri­cul­ture, as well as for the pro­tec­tion of nat­ural spaces.

What are the ben­e­fits of apply­ing aer­ial robot­ics and drones to agri­cul­ture and olive groves?

Sánchez: The main advan­tage of pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture, to which this type of tech­nol­ogy is applied, is cost reduc­tion. Being able to focus treat­ments needed to opti­mize har­vests in par­tic­u­lar areas of the farms greatly improves the prof­itabil­ity of crops. All of this leads to a reduc­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal impact of farm­ing activ­i­ties, sav­ing water and phy­tosan­i­tary prod­ucts.

What have been the most sig­nif­i­cant recent con­tri­bu­tions from tech­no­log­i­cal advances in the drones sec­tor to olive cul­ti­va­tion?

From a tech­ni­cal point of view, the appli­ca­tion of these tech­nolo­gies to olive groves enables farm­ers to eval­u­ate, in a very local­ized way, indices of humid­ity, water stress, etc. Mea­sure­ments of other para­me­ters in olive groves, such as the amount of nutri­ents and microele­ments present, are in devel­op­ment and both ATLAS and CATEC (Cen­ter for Advanced Aero­space Tech­nolo­gies) are very involved in this.

How is Atlas con­tribut­ing to these devel­op­ments, in Jaén, Andalu­sia, and the rest of Spain?

Atlas is already con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cantly to these advances. It has, in fact, been home to the Mochuelo project, an endeavor funded by the Provin­cial Coun­cil of Jaén and aimed at car­ry­ing out a fea­si­bil­ity study for the use of drones in the mon­i­tor­ing of olive groves. Some of the com­pa­nies that have made their flights at Atlas are actively engaged in devel­op­ing pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture ser­vices. In addi­tion, CATEC and Atlas have been inte­grated into a con­sor­tium led by ASAJA-Jaén (Agri­cul­tural Asso­ci­a­tion of Young Farm­ers), where Atlas will host a project to explore the advan­tages of pre­ci­sion farm­ing exclu­sively tar­get­ing olive grove farm­ing.

Also, as one of the venues for the UNVEX Eco-Agro forum this month, Atlas will become the cen­ter of atten­tion for the appli­ca­tion of drone-based tech­niques to agri­cul­ture.

In your opin­ion, how does the tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment of olive farm­ing in Jaén com­pare to that of other regions around the world?

As the main olive oil pro­duc­ing region in the world, Jaén has to be a spear­head in the appli­ca­tion of new tech­niques and new tech­nolo­gies. Today, both tra­di­tional olive cul­ti­va­tion and ultra-mod­ern farms coex­ist in Jaén, which makes the region an ideal set­ting for tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, since it is pos­si­ble to apply these inno­va­tions to all types of crops. The involve­ment of farm­ers in the mod­ern­iza­tion process brings with it an effi­ciency in all areas, from the purely agri­cul­tural to both eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal aspects. This is a syn­ergy that ulti­mately boosts the inter­na­tional stand­ing of Span­ish olive oil as a whole, and of Jaén’s oil in par­tic­u­lar.

What do you think will be the most imme­di­ate chal­lenges for the Span­ish indus­try in the appli­ca­tion of these tech­nolo­gies for agri­cul­ture, and how do you think they could be over­come?

There are sev­eral aspects that will be impor­tant; the reg­u­la­tory frame­work should pave the way for the proper devel­op­ment of new tech­niques; of course, includ­ing the nec­es­sary restric­tions to main­tain a total com­mit­ment to the safety of oper­a­tions. The involve­ment of admin­is­tra­tions, uni­ver­si­ties, and research cen­ters will bring advances in R&D that will cre­ate a flow of knowl­edge that is needed for the wide­spread appli­ca­tion of these tech­niques.

On the other hand, pri­vate com­pa­nies need to be able to apply these tech­niques effi­ciently and at an afford­able cost, both to large plan­ta­tions and to more mod­est farms (which are the major­ity in Jaén). And finally, asso­ci­a­tions of farm­ers, irri­ga­tors, and other involved par­ties will even­tu­ally apply these tech­niques not as an added cost but as an invest­ment that will, in the medium term, result in increased effi­ciency in the use of water and phy­tosan­i­tary prod­ucts, and there­fore boost prof­its.

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