Drones in Agriculture, Research Paving the Way for Better Crop Management

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At Belltown Hill Orchards in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a new vehicle is hitting the farm: unmanned aerial vehicles, or better known as drones. Drones are a new frontier for farmers who want to keep track of their crops and gather data on plant health. Using drones in this way will save farmers time; with drone technology, the entirety of Belltown Hill Orchards (about 150 acres) can be monitored and viewed in a couple of hours.

Nancy Marek, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, utilizes drones at Belltown Hill Orchards to collect aerial imagery of blueberry bushes. To test the accuracy of these images, she has also been taking physical samples of the leaves to measure the plants’ health. She also conducted similar operations over the Honeycrisp apple orchards. What makes these drone images even better than the human eye (in addition to the fact that the drone can more efficiently inspect the fields), is that it is equipped with special sensors that can look into parts of the spectrum that our eyes simply cannot. Using those infrared and other bands, the imagery captured by the drone can tell farmers the biophysical characteristics of the crop. However, again, to make sense of the drone imagery, researchers are also gathering samples from the crop to determine the plants’ overall health. These researchers gather about 100 leaves and determine what nutrients are in them; that data can be tied to the imagery to create a system for reading the imagery without the collection of the physical plant leaves (eventually).

If this research can lead to a model for farmers to identify issues with crops from the sky, it could reduce the cost of testing, crop loss, decreased yield and crop disease. The goal is for farmers to use drones to cut down human time and money.

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