AgriLife Research remote sensing technology aims to solve critical crop diseases

by Blair Fannin, Texas A&M AgriLife

Sensor technology could possibly solve many challenges of crop production,  and Texas A&M AgriLife Research faculty are aggressively attempting to find new solutions.

Dr. Alex Thomasson, an AgriLife Research biological and agricultural engineer, and Dr. Seth Murray, AgriLife Research corn breeder, both in College Station, and others are working jointly on several projects.

One project, an unmanned ground phenotyping system, provides data that can be used to aid decisions in breeding and production agriculture through techniques like conceptual modeling and spatial prediction, according to the scientists.

“The current ground phenotyping vehicle we are working on allows us to drive the vehicle through a field of corn and collect real-time data,” Thomasson said. “We are also developing an autonomous phenotyping vehicle that will navigate itself through the field based on GPS. The purpose of these vehicles is to be able to drive through the field even over mature corn so we can collect data all the way through its growth cycle. This allows us to measure the height of the plant, evaluate the temperature of the plant and also get light reflectance in various wavelengths to determine the health of the plant.

“We can also look at other characteristics like the drought tolerance of the plant. The data these machines collect will ultimately enable the breeder to make selections from the best varieties and to do so much quicker.”

Thomasson and other AgriLife and U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are developing the ability to use remote sensing to detect and treat cotton root rot. Cotton Incorporated has been a strong supporter of this research, some of which is occurring at the Stiles Farm at Thrall.  

“The cotton root rot project involves a lot of remote-sensing work to detect the locations of infection within individual fields,” he said. “It’s expensive for cotton farmers, not only the yield losses from the disease but the treatment to prevent it. It’s costing them about $50 an acre to treat the fields, but this research can save them a lot of money by enabling them to treat only the infected areas of a field. Some are trying to use satellite data to identify infected areas, but the image resolution is low. We’ve begun using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), which give us images with extremely high resolution. We have the potential to see where each infected plant is so we can know exactly where to place fungicide in subsequent seasons.”

The remote-sensing research is related to a broader scope of research projects implemented by AgriLife Research. The Texas A&M Coordinated Agricultural Unmanned Aerial Systems project and Ground Vehicle Validation is a collaboration of more than 40 faculty members within the Texas A&M University System.

Led by AgriLife Research, the project also involves the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, and the Center for Geospatial Applications and Technologies, as well as businesses and farmers. The research centers on 1,400 acres of AgriLife Research fields near College Station where corn, cotton, sorghum and wheat, as well as peaches and perennial grasses are grown.

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