Drones, Joysticks, and Data-Driven Farming

Image of cranberry plants under different types of light
These images of cranberry plants were taken by a drone outfitted with multispectral cameras used to diagnose plant damage. The left column was the control, not subjected to pests, while the right column was.

Brian Luck grew up on an 800-acre corn and soybean farm in western Kentucky, so he knows well the look of a planted field from the exact height of a tractor seat.

But these days, Luck is more familiar with a much loftier view of farm fields. It’s a bird’s-eye perspective afforded by the “unmanned aircraft vehicles,” or drones, that have captured Luck’s imagination as an assistant professor of biological systems engineering and extension specialist in machinery systems at UW–Madison.

From a workshop in the Agricultural Engineering Laboratory, Luck has been working to wed the programmable flight of drones with the evolving science of remote sensing — imaging farm fields with spectroscopes and infrared cameras to reveal what the naked eye cannot see.

This summer, he and Shawn Steffan MS’97, an assistant professor of entomology will test knowledge gained from months of sweaty greenhouse studies by piloting their disease- and pest-seeking drone above cranberry bogs in northern Wisconsin. The work is being financed through a two-year grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and funding from the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association.

It’s called “precision agriculture,” according to Luck and Steffan, who is also a research entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. And with all the work going on in their labs, greenhouses, and fields, drone-based precision ag is on the near horizon.

A better understanding of the data and images gathered by the drone-borne instruments could lead to new ways for cranberry growers to detect insects and disease weeks sooner than traditional scouting forays on the ground. Such foreknowledge would allow them to treat threatened plants earlier and avert more widespread damage and crop loss, according to Luck. And because farmers would know more precisely where to spray, they could reduce pesticide use, which would be a major cost saver and a boon to ecosystems already overburdened by chemicals.

“The savings on inputs alone makes this work justifiable,” Luck says. “But until we show a farmer he or she is getting a dollars-and-cents benefit, until you show value, they’re not going to invest.”

Originally published in Grow, Wisconsin’s Magazine for the Life Sciences, written by Ron Seely. Read the full article here.