Participants at the EARC Field Day in Sidney, Montana, watch a drone demonstrate how quickly it can collect data needed to evaluate test plots for new varieties.

Hand-held devices have long helped agronomists take data from fields on such things as canopy heights and temperatures, to help in assessing the performance of new varieties.

But the devices are time-consuming to use, and their results vary based on the time of day and the temperature. That makes collecting uniform data from a large number of test fields problematic.

“If you started on this field, it’s a lot of data,” research Agronomist Dr. Gautam Pradhan said. “You would have already spent three hours, and the sun is elsewhere and the temperature is something else.”

That makes it difficult to correlate all the data.

“You do it with math, but it won’t be exact,” Pradhan said.

A drone could dramatically speed the process, allowing researchers to collect in a half hour what used to take half a day to do. Pradhan is looking at how well drones can collect the information researchers need in a collaborate project with the Eastern Agricultural Research Center, Williston Research Center, and the USDA-ARS laboratory in Sidney. He has been flying drones to collect data to evaluate new varieties of spring wheat, barley, and durum wheat in both dryland and irrigated conditions, and comparing it to the data collected by the old method.

Pradhan brought his drones to the EARC and ARS Dryland Field Day on Thursday, June 20, to demonstrate how quickly the devices can fly a field and shoot the pictures that collect the data needed to evaluate new varieties.

The drone he used for the demonstration is fairly large and sturdy.

“It is so big and nice that it can even carry a big camera that you might have used during your wedding,” Pradhan said.

The camera has to be light enough in weight that the entire unit doesn’t exceed 55 pounds, otherwise it is no longer considered a drone by FAA regulations.

All kinds of cameras can be attached to the drone, but the kind Pradhan is using is called a multi-spectral camera. These cameras use green, red, red-edge and near infrared wavelengths of light to capture images of crops and vegetation. The images can later be analyzed by software programs that analyze them for such things as identifying pests, refining fertilization schemes, and estimating crop yields.

For variety trials, researchers are looking at certain plant canopy traits that relate closely to the crop’s physiology, growth, and yield, to develop higher yielding, more drought tolerant and winter resistant cereal varieties.

Not only can the drones get the same data more quickly than previous methods, but they can be sent out to collect that data more often, which should help researchers evaluate varieties with more accuracy.

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