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Octocopter! Geography Professor Uses Experimental Drone for Agricultural Research

Posted on 29/09/2015
Octo agaisnt trees2

Demonstrator technology takes to the skies to collect data for field trials

Professor Martin Wooster in the Department of Geography at King's College London has expertise in environmental applications of remote sensing and multi-spectral imaging, and has been working with Rothamstead Research for two years on developing the use of drone technology in crop "field phenotyping" (where many different crop varieties are grown in under real field conditions and their traits (size, growth rate, photosynthetic characteristics, final yield etc) assessed. This has traditionally involved large amounts of manual measurement, but by placing various remote sensing devices on a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can be repeatedly flown over the field site on a weekly basis it was believed that the process could be made both potentially more rigorous and less time consuming.

Drones could bring a lot to agriculture, but are we ready for them?

The octocopter is an enabling technology. It can be controlled manually or fly itself via GPS, and is fitted with special cameras that can image crop growth, and probably much more.It’s not too hard to see a future where an automated drone could search fields for areas of crop damage from pests, or see nutrient- or water-stressed plants from above that the human eye would miss. The drone could then feed the GPS co-ordinates to a farm worker, who could then manage the appropriate response. As the physical capability of drones increases, as well as reliability, you have to wonder if the drones themselves could not spray pesticides and drop fertiliser pellets in the right space and in ultra-low quantities, negating the need to treat entire fields with heavy tractors that can compact the ground and damage soil.

Watch the octocopter in-action here AND here, BBSRC site.

The craft has a regular RGB (red blue green) imager as in a conventional digital camera. It also has a TIR (thermal infrared) camera which can be used to monitor the crop canopy or soil temperature. The canopy temperature can give an indication of crop stress, because when plants experience drought for example their temperature rises as they stop evaporating water from their leaves.

Further research on this idea is being taken forward under the BBRSC PhD studentship of Fenner Holman, awarded to Professor Martin Wooster of King's College London, Rothamstead and Bayer Crop Sciences Ag and commencing in October 2015.

Image credits: © BBSRC and © Rothamsted Research.

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