Idaho drone project studies potato stress
By John O’Connell
POCATELLO, Idaho — Eastern Idaho potato growers hope to discover stresses to their crops before symptoms are visible to the naked eye this season through collaborative research with the state’s three universities and the Idaho National Laboratory.
The project will entail using unmanned aerial vehicles to fly over 2,388 potato acres on a weekly basis, scanning crops with multispectral cameras, which detect near-infrared and other frequencies humans can’t see.
Red color on maps will depict crop stresses — such as lack of water, nutrient deficiencies and diseases. The project was recently awarded a $150,000 USDA grant, covering certain equipment costs and work by graduate students for about a year and a half. Once funding runs out, Donna Delparte, an assistant professor at Idaho State University’s Department of Geosciences and the project’s lead researcher, hopes to secure a larger sustainable-farming grant to continue the project for another five years.
“The idea is to make a very rapid assessment of a crop and come up with some parameters to detect what the problems might be, and that allows a grower to make a rapid management response to any kind of threat to the crop,” Delparte said.
Participating potato growers include Wada Farms, Walters Produce, Driscoll Brothers and K.G. Nickell Farms. Furthermore, the researchers will study the Driscolls’ 165-acre sugar beet field planted with a special planter that records a GPS position for each plant in the field, and Robert Blair, of Kendrick, Idaho, will allow the researchers to monitor his grain fields to compare their camera images with his own multi-spectral maps.
Delparte hopes to obtain Federal Aviation Administration approval by mid-July for pending permits to fly a pair of multi-propellered helicopter UAVs over the project area this season. Delparte plans to work closely with local airstrips and crop dusters to avoid conflicts.
In addition to weekly mutlicopter surveillance, Derek Wadsworth, who heads INL’s UAV program, will contribute a larger, fixed-wing UAV with a heavier and more detailed hyper-spectral camera. INL’s UAV will fly over the research fields twice during the season, allowing the researchers to analyze how effectively cameras with differing levels of detail can detect crop stresses.
Nancy Glenn, a Boise State University geosciences professor, will serve as an adviser on hyper-spectral imaging.
University of Idaho plant pathologist Louise-Marie Dandurand will inoculate potato plants in a greenhouse with certain diseases and expose some of them to nutrient and water stress in order to establish a baseline for how different crop problems should appear under spectrometers.
“In a lot of integrated management programs, the earlier you can detect a problem, the smaller the problem can be,” Dandurand said. “If you’re talking about late blight, for example, an earlier application of a fungicide might be beneficial and reduce your losses.”
J.R. Simplot, Co., will contribute precision agriculture equipment, including ground-based sensors used to measure soil moisture. The researchers will also test soil and plants to confirm crop stresses that may be detected by cameras.