AMARILLO, Texas — Charlie Rush hopes to use a helicopter drone to track disease across wheat fields, to eventually help producers make better irrigation decisions.
Rush, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist, is being helped by Ian Johnson, a Montana State University-Bozeman graduate student who is using his work in the university’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program to help scientists conduct research.
Approximately 1.1 million acres of wheat in the High Plains are irrigated, Rush said, making wheat the second-largest user of irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer. In this same region, mite-vectored virus diseases are the predominant pathogenic constraint to sustainable wheat production each year.
The viruses causing these diseases are transmitted by the wheat curl mite, he said. Infected wheat plants have reduced grain and forage yields, and greatly reduced root weight and water-use efficiency. Therefore, fertilizer and groundwater applied as irrigation to diseased wheat is largely wasted.
The helicopter takes remote images of a field study where they are trying to develop an economic threshold for irrigation of wheat infected with wheat streak and other mite-vectored diseases.
“The problem for farmers is that these diseases develop in gradients over time and they don’t know whether or not they should apply new pesticides or fertilizers or water,” he said in a news release. “Most of these practices are done in April, and that is when the disease is just starting to show up. They may know they have disease in the field, but they don’t know how much damage it might cause.
“So, what we are trying to do is be able to go in early in the season and look at the disease development at a particular time and then based on what it looks like, say in early April, be able to give them a prediction of what the crop will be at harvest time.”
Rush’s team has been going into the field using different types of remote imaging, such as the hand-held hyperspectral radiometer, to measure and quantify the severity of disease development in the field.
A wedge image can be made after the helicopter has made about six passes over the field. Johnson stitched the images together for a complete picture.
“Now, the application and use of this helicopter drone is one more way of measuring the disease development,” Johnson said. “The beautiful thing about this is instead of having to deal with handheld devices, you can come in and fly the entire field in a matter of five minutes and get a very, very high resolution. So we are excited about the possibilities this may provide for our project.”
The Y6 helicopter, named for its Y shape and six propellers, is made by 3D Robotics and includes an autopilot.
“That allows us to preprogram flights and fly a grid. As it is flying the grid, it takes top-down photos,” Johnson said. “Once we collect the photos, we stitch them together and build a giant photo mosaic of each field we flew over.”
Johnson said using this technology for ag research provides many improvements to the previous services available. Many researchers have used satellite imagery before, but this provides resolution 100 to 1,000 times greater than the LandSat satellite imagery Rush and his team used in the past.
Johnson said the drone is using visible spectrum only — still photographs — because the project is focused on the yellow band of light, which easily captures the typical symptoms of wheat streak mosaic. “But, this is a modular system,” he said. “We could put near infrared, thermal, any array of multi-spectral sensors on here to capture whatever data it is the project demands.”