The future of using drones in nursery production

Drones have the potential to revolutionize the nursery industry as inventory and labor continue to be challenges for the industry.

Drone preparing for flight to inventory field of arborvitae.
Drone preparing for flight to inventory field of arborvitae. Photo by Heidi Lindberg, MSU Extension.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have the potential to revolutionize how nursery growers inventory their field-grown nursery stock. As labor continues to be the number one challenge for nursery growers, any potential for automation should be considered. In addition to the labor shortage, agriculture businesses, as a whole, are consolidating as many medium-sized farms get bought out by larger farms. Increasing efficiency and minimizing labor will be essential to future success of farms across Michigan.

Throughout the last two years, Robert Goodwin, senior geospatial analyst at Remote Sensing and GIS Research and Outreach Services (RS&GIS), teamed up with a several large nurseries and Christmas tree farms to test the use of drones as tools for managing inventory and recording heights of field-grown stock.

2017 RS&GIS project

During the 2017 project, Goodwin and Nick Weil, geospatial analyst at RS&GIS, designed a process to use drones in the inventory evergreen nursery (arborvitae) and Christmas trees. The goals were to extract accurate heights for each tree and generate health information using drones and provide the information to the grower in a user-friendly format.

First, researchers collected imagery from two arborvitae fields and several Christmas tree fields. Then, they processed the images by “stitching them” together in order to create a 3D model. Finally, they developed models on how to estimate numbers of trees in a field and their heights, using spectral indices, via a GIS.

Potential uses of drones in the nursery

The experiments showed when the drone flew within 200 feet above the trees, the tree inventory was over 97 percent accurate. In addition, the heights of the arborvitaes were accurate to within 4 inches.

The potential uses for drones in the nursery setting include:

  • Estimating number of trees per acre.
  • Estimating height of conical-form nursery stock or trees in the field.
  • Accessing the health of field-grown trees by identifying areas of poor soil condition, pests, disease or die off.

Want to learn more about using drones in nursery production?

Questions can be directed to Erin Bunting ( or Bruno Basso (

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