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International Potato Technology Expo provides new solutions for farming issues

Lee Dodson, CEO of Skygate Drone Services, holds his drone equipped with a multispectral crop imaging sensor (green device at the bottom) at this year's International Potato Technology Expo.
Lee Dodson, CEO of Skygate Drone Services, holds his drone equipped with a multispectral crop imaging sensor (green device at the bottom) at this year's International Potato Technology Expo. - Terrence McEachern
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —

Summerside's Lee Dodson believes he has found a technological way for farmers to have detailed knowledge of the health of their fields without stepping outside.

Dodson, CEO of Skygate Drone Services, was one of about 120 exhibitors at this year's International Potato Technology Expo at the Eastlink Centre on Friday and Saturday.

Dodson's company involves flying a drone equipped with a multispectral crop imaging sensor over a farmer's field to photograph and produce various computerized maps that show health issues and specific problem areas with a crop days or weeks before a farmer can detect them visually.

"So, the farmer can actually apply a solution, whether it is irrigation or fertalizer or pesticide. It is something they can address before the problem has actually caused permanent damage," he said.

The sensor technology uses the plant's chlorophyll to determine health as well as distinguishing between weeds and potato plants by the colour of their leaves. The sensor provides two-and-a-half centimetre accuracy about a plant's makeup from a drone flying 400 feet overhead, Dodson said.

Shawn White, the expo's show manager, said about 3,000 people were expected to attend the two-day event. Terrence McEachern
Shawn White, the expo's show manager, said about 3,000 people were expected to attend the two-day event. Terrence McEachern

To view and interpret the data from the sensor, farmers need to first suscribe to computer software, while Dodson flies the drone and provides the service for about $5 an acre. 

"It's a specialist job. You've got to be a professional drone pilot to deliver this kind of service, and you've got to know what you're doing," he said.

Dodson adds that the service saves farmers from relying on walking up and down fields to inspect crops. And, in doing so, it saves them time and money. 

Dodson has been flying drones for the past 20 years, including for the oil and gas industry as well as for agricultural anaylsis in Africa and Asia. But this is the first year he's providing the drone sensor service for farmers on the Island.

"I'm all about helping them understand the data as much as possible because I want them to have a better yield to more than cover the cost of having me deliver the service," he said.

This is the expo's 30th year. Show manager Shawn Murphy said he expected about 3,000 visitors to pass through the gates over the two-day event.

"It's really international. In the years to come, really what we're going to work on is getting people from even further away to know that P.E.I. is the capital for Canada for potatoes," he said.   

Other exhibitors at the expo included the P.E.I. Bag Company, Master Packaging Inc., and Allan Equipment Manufacturing Inc.

Mike Saleh, left, chief technological officer, and Kristine White, CEO of Spornado, were also exhibitor at this year's expo. White is standing next to the company's product, also called a Spornado, which has an orange cone that directs air flow into a compartment that helps detect airborne potato diseases, such as late blight. - Terrence McEachern
Mike Saleh, left, chief technological officer, and Kristine White, CEO of Spornado, were also exhibitor at this year's expo. White is standing next to the company's product, also called a Spornado, which has an orange cone that directs air flow into a compartment that helps detect airborne potato diseases, such as late blight. - Terrence McEachern

Another company at the expo was Spornado. The Toronto-based company has developed an air sampler device that helps farmer's detect airborne diseases, such as late blight – the cause of the Irish potato famine. The device is inserted in farmer's fields and an orange cone directs air flow into a filter. The filter is exchanged twice a week with another one and taken to a lab for DNA analysis. A farmer would generally use one sampler for every 100 acres, said Kristine White, the company's CEO. 

"What we're finding is we can find a disease, such as late blight, in the air up to two weeks before they see the symptoms on the ground," she said. 

This early detection information allows farmers to spray pesticides to kill the disease more efficiently, she added.

The product has only been available for sale for about two years. White said the P.E.I. government was testing the samplers for a while, and  farmers on the Island have yet to adopt the technology. Farmers in places like Ontario, Idaho and North Dakota are using the samplers, she said.

"We're here to meet the growers on P.E.I. and introduce them to the technology, and hopefully help them with effective spray decisions - that's the bottom line," White said. 

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