Drones that Sense Vegetation Index a Boon for Farmers

14 May 2018
Drones are helping wheat farmers in Australia to better determine the condition of plants. Source: University of South Australia

Drones that have the ability to identify crop health, moisture levels and nutrient content potentially could change the landscape of Australia’s multi-billion dollar wheat industry.

Researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) and the University of Adelaide are using drones in order to deliver to farmers more efficient agricultural land and for breeders to generate new varieties of wheat. By identifying levels of plant health, it could help farmers to plan and deliver precise water and nutrients to crops on a need-by-need basis.

“Drones enable farmers to move from traditional farming practices to precision farming, increasing their ability to accurately nurture crops across different sectors, at a reduced cost,” said Dr. Zohaib Khan, researcher at UniSA’s Phenomics and Bioinformatics Research Centre. “Until now, the drones required an expensive multispectral camera to scan agricultural land and indicate where there is a need for additional irrigation or application of fertilizer to selected crop segments.”

Researchers said multispectral imaging technology allows farmers to see beyond what a human can see with their eyes and allows them to be proactive rather than reactive about crops. The technology identifies healthy plants that exhibit a high vegetation index — bright green regions — mature, stressed or dead plants and soil manifesting a low vegetation index — displayed as yellow.

The drone flies about 20 meters above land, capturing one image of a section of a crop field every two seconds. The data is then processed offline and modeled into useful information through deep learning.

“When you’re growing crops in the driest continent in the world, being able to identify stress-tolerant crop varieties is critical — and this is where our new technology can help,” said Professor Stanley Miklavcic, Director of UniSA’s Phenomics and Bioinformatics Research Centre. “It’s ironic that Australia’s weather both facilitates and constrains Australia’s wheat production and superior quality. But anything we can do to advance and improve existing knowledge and technology, as well as make it accessible to Australian growers, is absolutely worth the effort.”

The full research can be found in the journal Plant Methods.

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