Researchers use drones to monitor the health of crops

I’ve written before about the growing use of drones in the farming industry, whether it’s in monitoring the soil or many other tasks that they are increasingly capable of performing.

One of the more quirky applications of drones is in measuring the stress levels of plants, which researchers believe could result in a reduction in insecticide use.

It’s widely believed that plant stress makes them more susceptible to attacks and infections, with the obvious implications of this for the commercial viability of the farm.

Detecting stressed out plants

Stress in plants can occur for any number of reasons, but the most common is usually some kind of deficiency in their nutrient levels.

“In particular, previous studies have found plants deficient in potassium will be more susceptible to attacks from pests, such as aphids,” researchers say.

So, how do drones set about measuring plant stress levels?  Well, they’re fitted with a multi-sensory camera that is capable of capturing the plant growth from field to field.  It does this by both visually monitoring the images captured, but also by measuring the wavelengths of light that are given off by each plant.

This wavelength is particularly important because the leaves of each plant reflect infrared light whenever they’re struck by sunlight.  The higher the infrared levels that are reflected, the greater the number of leaves and therefore the healthier the plant is deemed to be.

When the drone was put through its paces, it was found to be accurate 99.9% of the time at detecting nutrient deficient canola from a distance of 120 meters above ground level.

Reducing insecticide use

The team believe that if these results are robust and can be scaled up, then it can lead to more targeted application of insecticide, with the result being that farmers apply it more sparingly in future.

“Not only will this technology save farmers money, but it will also reduce the blanket application of insecticides across the farm resulting in mitigation of insecticide resistance and promotion of beneficial predator insects in unsprayed areas of crop,” they say.

Suffice to say, despite these promising early results, we are still at a very early stage in the deployment of the technology.  One of the primary hurdles at the moment is simplifying the messaging for farmers, as the drones are capturing a huge amount of data that can overwhelm the ability of farmers to respond.

Making the usability of the platforms better therefore will be a crucial step in the successful roll-out of the technology.  Here, perhaps the developers can take some lessons from drone companies that are performing similar analysis of things such as utility networks, with service staff given a kind of traffic light warning system of the most at risk locations.

As drones become more widespread in their application, it seems there are a multitude of lessons that can be learned from across sectors.  It will be interesting to see just how successful that proves to be.

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