Drone Watching: Alan Vandegrift Aims to Protect Crops From Hungry Birds

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In this series, we’re talking with people from various backgrounds who have one thing in common: an active interest in the future of drones.

Alan Vandegrift (left) and Lorin Vandegrift display their prototypes.

Maxwell Reister / Student Reporter

Alan Vandegrift (left) and Lorin Vandegrift display their prototypes.

PULLMAN, Wash. —A group of student entrepreneurs at Washington State University want to scare up business by developing a flying scarecrow with a brain.

Simple Intelligence, a team of seven engineering students and one economics major, is working on a prototype for a drone that would patrol orchards and fields to discourage birds from eating farmers’ crops.

“Twelvepercent of Washington orchard fruit is lost to birds annually,” said Alan Vandegrift, lead mechanical engineer and a senior in WSU’s mechanical engineering department.

Vandegrift started Simple Intelligence about a year ago with his brother Lorin, a computer science major. The team has adapted a quadcopter to haul four heavy batteries and an artificial intelligence computer. The computer would guide the drone over a predetermined flight path, and the batteries would ensure that the craft stays airborne long enough to discourage birds.

Alan Vandegrift works on one of their quadcopters.

Maxwell Reister / Student Reporter

Alan Vandegrift works on one of their quadcopters.

Farmers currently use everything from bells to balloons and even falcons to deter the pests. But birds are eating about $80 million worth of fruits, including cherries, apples and blueberries, each year, Vandegrift said.

Many orchards and fruit farms use netting to protect their vulnerable products from airborne thieves, but the price of protection can reach half a million dollars for an average farm. The Simple Intelligence solution is an unmanned system that might retail for $600, Vandegrift said.

The group is in an intense research and development phase and wants to have a fully functioning prototype by the time industry regulations are ready. The Federal Aviation Administration currently doesn’t allow commercial flights of unmanned aircraft systems, with a few exceptions, but regulations are expected to be finalized next year.

“Drones are a novel solution to a lot of different problems,” Vandegrift said.

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