NAMPA, Idaho — An Idaho researcher is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle that takes multispectral images that farmers can use to determine whether their plants are diseased or suffering water stress or nutrient deficiency.

The UAV, a light-weight, remote-control vehicle that resembles a miniature helicopter, was developed by Northwest Nazarene University professor Duke Bulanon.

“My goal is to develop this low-cost tool for farmers that they can fly in 20 to 30 minutes and then quickly analyze the images on their computer,” he said. “It will allow them to survey a large area quickly and identify crop conditions quickly.”

An $84,000 specialty crop grant from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture in 2012 funded Bulanon’s two-year project. After he “irons out some bugs,” the next step is perfecting a computer software system that can interpret the data for farmers.

To do that, he’ll need the help of farmers, he told dozens of producers who attended the University of Idaho Snake River Sugar Beet Conference Dec. 17.

“I know how to develop software, but you know how your plants are talking and together we could develop something beneficial for both farmers and researchers,” he said.

The UAV, which has eight rotors and flies at heights up to 400 feet, has a multispectral camera that measures the energy characteristics of a plant’s surface.

Bulanon has used the apple orchards at University of Idaho’s Parma research station to test and perfect what he calls a flying crop-monitoring platform.

Essie Fallahi, who heads UI’s pomology program and has assisted Bulanon, said the concept has great potential.

“We’re using that flying machine to see if we can develop a standard that can be used in a commercial situation for detecting water and nutrient stress based on the images it takes,” Fallahi said.

Bulanon has also worked with Bitner Vineyards owner Ron Bitner and used the UAV to take images of Bitner’s winegrape plants in Caldwell.

Bitner immediately noticed weeds in certain areas and an obviously diseased plant that appeared bright red, in contrast to the other plants, which appeared a healthy green.

Bitner hopes the UAV can be used to detect diseases and stress in winegrape plants, as well as powdery mildew. If the system works, Bitner said, growers could spot spray for powdery mildew and they could also remove diseased plants quickly.

“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “It’s still preliminary but I see a lot of potential.”

Bulanon told sugar beet growers he believes the system can be used to detect diseases such as rhizomania in their crop and that it can be used for a wide variety of crops as long as farmers help him understand what they want to look for so he can develop the right software program.

To find out more about Bulanon’s project, contact him by e-mail at or call (208) 467-8047.

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