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Crop-monitoring helicopter could keep eye on crops

'If we could develop this low-cost technology, it would be a big thing'


Capital Press

NAMPA, Idaho -- A researcher is developing a flying crop-monitoring platform that could be used by specialty crop producers to reduce inputs and save money.

The platform includes an unmanned helicopter with multispectral sensors that measure the energy characteristics of a plant's surface.

The images can be used to monitor a plant's condition and detect anomalies that could be attributed to such things as water stress, nitrogen deficiency or disease infestation.

This would allow producers to manage their farms more efficiently by controlling crop inputs such as irrigation water, fertilizer and chemicals, said Duke Bulanon, the Northwest Nazarene University professor who is leading the project.

"If we could develop this low-cost technology, it would be a big thing for farmers," said Bulanon, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Engineering. "It would give the farmer the ability to save money."

Bulanon and his team of students are assisted by Essie Fallahi, director of University of Idaho's pomology program. Bulanon is using the fruit orchards at the UI Parma research station to develop and test the system.

"It is a very exciting project," Fallahi said. "If a tree is under a certain type of stress, we will be able to detect it."

The two-year project was assisted by an $84,000 specialty crop grant NNU recently received from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Bulanon is using a simple remote-control helicopter for now but the eventual completed model calls for using a more advanced four-rotor helicopter that can be controlled remotely.

Some farmers hire commercial pilots to observe their fields, Bulanon said, "but how much better and cheaper would it be if they can fly this themselves and be done in 20 minutes?"

The technology for the project already exists but it's application to specialty crops is new, Bulanon said. The heart of the project is developing a computer model that will interpret the data in ways applicable to specialty crops.

"The technology is already there, but the image analysis is not," he said.

The research team has been flying over Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell this summer, taking images of apples, grapes, cherries and peaches that are being used to begin shaping the model.

If the project is successful, "we can use it to see things like water stress, possible disease outbreaks and fertilizer deficiencies," orchard manager Michael Williamson said. "You can't manage something if you can't measure it. This would give us a way to measure and manage."

"This technology has existed for a little while but to tie it in with our industry, I find that awesome," he said.


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