With benefits – and, sometimes, disadvantages – of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, on the increase, researchers had found a new way to use the technology – this time, however, humans won’t be the only ones to enjoy the spoils.
In a new study, led by research scientist Dusty Severtson from the Department of Agriculture and Food in Western Australia, an eight-rotor drone equipped with a multi-sensor camera was able to accurately detect potassium-deficient plants at 120 metres above ground with up to 99.9% accuracy.
Efficiently diagnosing plants with elevated stress levels could be highly useful to farmers, as ailing crops are known to be more susceptible to pests, such as aphids.
Researchers could see which areas in the field of canola, which was selected for the study, have the poorest plant growth by analysing the camera angles and the wavelengths of light given off by the plants.
The cell structures of plant leaves strongly reflect near-infrared light when they are hit by sunlight. The more infrared light is reflected, the more leaves a plant has, thus indicating its health. Plants with the lowest concentrations of potassium showed less biomass and much worse green peach aphid infestations.
If the results of the study are confirmed by ground-level analysis, “doctor drones” could be used for early detection of pests and disease, and hopefully encourage farmers to use insecticides more sparingly.
“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,” said Dr Severtson.
In terms of applying UAVs in actual farms not far from now, he was less optimistic, though – while drone imaging technology is more accurate than satellite imaging, it’s not likely to be applied en masse anytime soon.
“One of the biggest hurdles is that we are still producing “Big Data”, meaning we are receiving huge amounts of information and farmers are really only looking for one or two simple findings from this technology.”