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Avocados are in danger. Drones could save them

Avocados are in danger. Drones could save them
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHUTTERSTOCK

If you'll be buying one of the million or so drones that people will buy this holiday season, you'll probably use it the way almost everyone else will. For fun.

Yet, while you're having fun, many companies are starting to use drones for commercial purposes, like fighting fires, selling real estate, filming movies and many other purposes. But you probably never thought you'd be hearing about teenagers using drones to help dogs sniff out beetles.

Yet, that's just what's happening in Florida, where its $13 million avocado industry is under attack by the ambrosia beetle. The rice-sized invasive species from Indonesia cuts a hole in avocado trees. Then, it inserts the Raffaelea lauricola fungus, which it farms for food.

The tree kills itself in an attempt to fend off the fungus. It shuts down all its internal systems to kill the fungus, but ends up dying itself.

More than 90% of infected trees die within six weeks. Since 2002, about 500 million trees across the Southeast have been killed by the beetle.

To help protect trees, the Florida Department of Agriculture has issued grants to drone pilots and to train dogs to find the fungus. Here's how it works.

The pilots, including some from Florida high schools, fly drones over vast avocado farms. They look for discolored trees that may signal they're infected with the beetle. Often, there is more than one pilot flying these drones because the Federal Aviation Administration requires that drone pilots can visually see where the drone is going.

Once the drone pilots find sickly looking trees, dog handlers send in trained dogs to find those trees. Dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to human's 5 million. It takes about nine months of training before the dogs can pinpoint trees invaded by the beetle.

When the dogs find the infected trees, it's fairly easy for farmers to treat them. For about $1,200, they can spray a fungicide on about an acre of farmland.

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