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Eye in the sky keeps tabs on nursery stock

OSU Extension puts new test vehicle through its paces


For the Capital Press

AURORA, Ore. -- No, it's not extraterrestrial. Nor is it a highly classified CIA project out of Area 51.

But the unique, new device with nursery and other ag-related applications being tested by Oregon State University Extension could easily pass for either of the two.

Called a "drone" or "hovercraft" by some and a "multi-rotor system" by researchers, the unique little eye in the sky has shown great promise in performing aerial inventories of container and field-grown stock.

OSU Extension Christmas tree specialist Chal Landgren is also studying the craft's use in conducting tree inventories.

The drone-like device is capable of saving growers hundreds of hours that normally would be spent keeping track of ever-changing inventories, said Jim Owen, OSU Extension nursery crop research and extension agent.

The evaluations are funded by the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. In addition to OSU, the University of Arkansas and University of Florida are testing the machine on crops in those areas.

The German-designed device has six small propellers, arranged in a circle, that rotate in different directions. A digital camera is positioned below the propellers and stabilized so that it will maintain a constant shooting angle regardless of the motion of the machine.

The drone is controlled by a single operator who maneuvers it much the same way as model airplanes are flown.

During operation, the unit is flown to and hovered over pre-determined "way points," where the camera takes pictures of a portion of the target crop. These images are then "stitched" together to form a seamless, panoramic view of the field, which allows for instant tabulation of plant numbers.

All components, both hardware and software, are off the shelf. The entire unit, which includes the remote sensing device and controls, retails for around $5,000.

In addition to crop inventories, the drone may be able to perform other surveillance, such as those to determine plant size, color and health. It may also have applications in pinpointing certain disease areas in a field.

Owen said that many of the inventory estimates today are based on plant counts representing only 10 percent of the field, whereas the drone counts every plant. The drone, he added, will also make it economically feasible for users to take inventories more than once or twice a year.

"There are really endless opportunities with this," said Sam Doane, production horticulturist for J. Frank Schmidt Nursery. "There are many facets of production that this can be applied to beyond inventory (management). We can look at weed management, nutrition management, productivity issues within a field, disease and pest issues. The opportunities are limited only by our imagination."

The device will be on display during an open house at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center Aug. 23.

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