A new method for managing irrigation with drones may be easier and more effective than anything used by farmers today. It's designed to solve a pressing problem for California orange farmers: getting the coveted "Fancy" quality classification for their fruit. Left at a constant irrigation level, some orange varieties will develop creases that make them worthless for anything but juicing, so farmers must temporarily restrict water levels throughout the season, testing trees periodically to see how much water they're receiving. Normally, this is done by driving out to the field and applying a pressure gauge to leaves from random trees, testing the liquid content. But this method is prone to error, since it's far too time-consuming to test enough trees for a representative sample.

David Goldhamer of the University of California's Agricultural Research Center, however, thinks he has found a way to automate the process. Goldhamer has set drones to fly over an entire orchard, capturing ultra-high resolution infrared images. Each pixel in the images can be read for temperature, which is affected by how much water is in the area — lower temperatures mean more irrigation. By getting a full image of an orchard, which can span hundreds of acres, farmers can keep the water levels consistent, resulting in both more attractive fruit and reduced water consumption. This technique isn't currently being used commercially, but with new domestic drone regulations on the way, Goldhamer says "It isn’t a matter of if this technology will be used, it’s a matter of when."