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Farming with drones hones in on drier zones

drone and trees
flickr/Michael MK Khor
Researchers at MSU are using drones to study water usage in agricultural fields.

The United Nations recognizes March 22 as World Water Day.  Michigan State University is observing the event with a speaker series.  Dr. Bruno Basso, a University Foundation Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, uses drones to study how seed crops consume water. 


Dr. Bruno Basso:

It’s  through the thermal imagery that we measure the temperature of the plants, which is an indication of whether they’re running a fever or not; if  they’re healthy or not; how much water has been used by the plant in terms of efficiency.  That’s how many pounds or bushels per millimeter of water is used in a corn or soybean or wheat field.

Kevin Lavery:

How did farmers have to figure out the health of their fields before drones? 


Indeed, this type of technology is allowing farmers not to walk in their fields because it helps with scouting, a dominant contribution of drones.  Nowadays with the combination of improved genetics as well as improved management, our research really focused on how site-specific management can help farmers reach higher goals in yields and profit.


If a drone is looking at a field, there could be some topographical differences in that field.  Does that indicate more or less moisture or water?


Drones, in general, do a very good job in detecting those areas.  But we also have digital elevation models.  Through that, we already know areas of concavity or convexity where water either accumulates or flies away from hilltops.  The drone is really just a piece of the puzzle that we’re trying to put together in this research program.

The sensors measure the reflection of the plants’ lights between the red and near infrared band.  That’s highly correlated to the amount of chlorophyll in the plants.  We can back calculate the amount of nitrogen in the plant, and we can apply only the nitrogen fertilizer that the plants demand, rather than a uniform blanket application where you overestimate in some areas and underestimate in other areas.


What’s the takeaway about water?


The first thing is to realize that water is a natural resource that we all have to really look after.  It’s finite.  If we don’t look after it, you get low quality and limited use for agriculture, which is the largest consumer of fresh water.  So, one optimistic view is that with the technology that’s moving so fast, we’re getting closer to understanding the soil-plant-climate interaction so that we can help producers and policymakers make more informed decisions so we can protect this wonderful resource that surrounds Michigan.

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