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How drones and dogs are saving Florida's avocado trees

A devastating fungal disease in Florida threatens the nation’s nearly half-billion dollar avocado industry
Drones, dogs used to protect avocado from disease 04:08

In Florida, a devastating disease threatens the nation's nearly half-a-billion dollar avocado industry. That's leading researchers to use extreme measures: drones and dogs.

Avocado grove owner Art Ballard said his trees mysteriously started dying one day. Then it was discovered they had a disease called laurel wilt and had to be cut down. Until now, there was no way to tell the trees were even sick before it was too late, reports CBS News correspondent Vicente Arenas.

The hunt for the deadly fungus begins in the air. A drone scans a seemingly healthy avocado grove and in just minutes, its multi-spectral camera spots trees in trouble.

Trees indicated in yellow or red may be infected by a fungus, carried by the microscopic ambrosia beetle that causes laurel wilt.

"What [drones] are going to do is cover more area for us and pinpoint an area that looks like it might have the disease," Florida International University microbiologist DeEtta Mills said.

Once the drone has narrowed the search area, the dogs set to work. The fungus spreads through a tree's interior and is invisible to the human eye, but the smell is inescapable to the sensitive noses of these trained dogs. They check every tree at risk and sit when the disease is detected.

It was amazing to see the effectiveness of the dogs, Mills said.

"Because this is such a difficult thing for them to do, is to sniff out a fungus that's inside of a tree," she said. "It's not like drugs in somebody's pocket."

Laurel wilt has killed an estimated 6,000 avocado trees in Florida in the last few years. The state is the second-largest avocado producer in the nation, and a $64 million industry is now at risk.

Ballard has lost nearly 100 avocado trees to the disease.

"It hits a tree and it's quick - it doesn't take long. Once it shows the symptoms, it's over," Ballard said.

The fungus moves quickly. In just a couple of weeks, lush green avocado trees can be turned into a field of devastation. The dogs and drones enable growers to identify affected trees before they start showing symptoms. Farmers can treat them and surrounding trees with an IV fungicide so they don't infect the rest of the grove.

Dr. Ken Furton is a leading scholar in scent detection at Florida International University. It was his idea to use dogs to ferret out the fungus.

"So by early detection with the dogs, we think we can do an early treatment, similar to cancer. So if you can do an early detection to cancer, you can save the patient and we believe we can do the same thing with trees," Furton said.

Scientists are now working on a plan to train other dogs to detect laurel wilt around the world.

For Ballard, the loss of his groves would be personal.

"Well, you know, you've got a lot of your memories here," Ballard said. "I can remember mowing and harvesting with my dad and my granddad and my kids, so it would be a personal loss."

Scientists hope to stop the disease in Florida. One of their biggest fears is that it will spread to California, the country's largest producer of avocados. For now, growers in Florida are hoping to get through this season, as they start harvesting groves in June.

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