High-flying technology improves research on the ground

Researchers at U of G are getting a bird’s-eye view of early warning signs of crop damage thanks to the use of drones.

Guelph researchers use drones to study crop damage.These remote-controlled aircraft with cameras mounted on them can help detect damage caused by disease, moisture, stress and pests. High-definition aerial photography by drones also allows researchers and farmers to use herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers more efficiently. Drones can also help assess the condition of crops earlier than scouting on foot.

Plants demonstrate early signs of sickness and stress through chlorophyll, a green pigment responsible for light absorption in their leaves. Chlorophyll in healthy plants absorbs red light and reflects infrared (IR) light. Damaged chlorophyll reflects both red and IR light. Photographs taken by the drones pick up these subtle light signals that are invisible to the human eye and offer an objective insight into the plants’ health.

Plant agriculture professors Liz Lee and Bill Deen are using drones at the Elora Research Station to conduct studies on corn nitrogen requirements.

Prof. Mary Ruth McDonald, Department of Plant Agriculture, is also using drones to help integrate a more efficient and objective assessment of crops at the Muck Research Station in the Holland Marsh. She is using aerial crop monitoring to improve integrated pest management, a method of identifying pests and determining risk before applying fungicides and insecticides, and to assess vegetable crops at the station.

“Drones are an exciting new technology, and many researchers are interested in their compatibility with research projects,” says McDonald.