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Texas A&M AgriLife Updates Unmanned Aerial Systems Program

By Blair Fannin, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Blair Fannin

A contingent of Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists – part of a cross-disciplined unmanned aerial systems research team – recently gave briefings on project results conducted across Texas.

The AgriLife UAS program is one of the largest research programs in the U.S., according to administrators, utilizing both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on row crop and rangeland spanning from Weslaco, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and College Station to Amarillo.

Program areas focus on flight operations, data analysis, management and dissemination, as well as plant phenotyping, precision agriculture and animal and pasture.

“We have everyone from crop breeders, soil scientists and agricultural engineers to computational specialists all focused on developing diagnostics to provide the status of crop health and ultimately improve overall yields,” said Dr. Bill McCutchen, executive associate director of AgriLife Research, College Station.

“When you combine these data and assessments with our genotyping platform, it provides really powerful decision-making tools for our scientists,” he stated. “On the farmer side, as we develop better diagnostics for crops, it will allow an individual to assess and treat a field using a prescriptive and more efficient process for determining irrigation regimens, fertilizer applications or even treating diseases. If a disease shows up in one particular location, and if you can get to it quick enough, it can save a farmer a lot of time and money.”

The recent meeting was an update on work conducted in 2016. There was optimism among scientists at the meeting, and excitement continues to build on what lies ahead with regards to breakthrough technologies to assist Texas farmers and ranchers and beyond in achieving higher yields and production, according to attendees.

“This is no different than molecular marker technology 20 years ago,” said Dr. Bill Rooney, AgriLife Research Faculty Fellow and sorghum breeder, College Station. “Ground truth measurements may not always be right.”

Dr. Alex Thomasson, AgriLife Research biological and agricultural engineer, College Station, provided an overview of equipment and sensors being used in the program.

“Fixed-winged aircraft fly higher, longer and faster,” Thomasson said. “They are especially good for crop fields.”

He said the rotary TurboAce X88 octocopter is also being used in experiments with the ability to capture quality images.

“It can fly slow and really get detailed, high-quality images,” he said. “It can work in multiple crops and measure plant height.”

Thomasson said the goals of his team is to provide next-day data to field research teams. In 2016, 289 flights were recorded.

Dr. Juan Landivar, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi, said they made the transition from using tractors for data collection to UAVs at the end of 2015. UAV research at the Corpus Christi center involves sorghum, cotton, vegetables, corn and cattle.

Members of the project team gave updates including Jinha Jung, AgriLife Research scientist, who gave a demonstration of an online research collaboration portal for UAS data. He is also working with Landivar to transfer data to another simulation model for comprehensive analysis.

Dr. Murilo Maeda, AgriLife Research scientist, also of Corpus Christi, is using crop simulation data to evaluate breeding lines in the field. He said the technology has “incredible potential for plant breeders” in developing potential lines that can adapt to Texas’ ever-changing climatic conditions during the growing season.

Automating data gathering and replacing human labor that walks row after row performing numerous measurements on crop plants has much appeal.

“UAS have great potential for automating field-based phenotyping,” said Lonesome Malambo, AgriLife Research associate under project leader Dr. Sorin Popescu, AgriLife Research ecosystem science and management scientist, College Station.

Malambo said his team “performed 80 flights in the plant height study and evaluated structure from multiple techniques for deriving 3D clouds of plant in canopies. Flight operations were multitemporal, examining plant height, phenotyping study.” He said the team concluded that UAS flights should be adapted to crop growth cycles, with more flights during periods of rapid growth.

“Also, robust control of measurements are needed.”

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