Apr 10, 2013
OSU to use unmanned aircraft for potato research

Oregon State University (OSU) will incorporate two small, remote-controlled aircraft equipped with cameras to photograph potato fields. Researchers hope that the resulting data will provide insights to more efficient use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, leading to improved yields and cutting input costs.

The two planes will fly over a 50-acre plot at OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC), as well as several crop circles totaling about 1,000 acres at a research cooperative farm west of Boardman, Ore. The flights will take place three times a week until fall harvest.

Don Hornek, OSU Extension Service agronomist, is the lead researcher on the project. Ray Hunt, a plant physiologist with the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, Md., will collaborate with Hornek on the data analysis.

The aircraft will use various cameras to photograph the potato plants, including cameras that detect different wavelengths of light including infrared. Plants reflect infrared light but unhealthy plants reflect less infrared light and appear darker in photographs. Researchers will explore using other light wavelengths to determine which ones are more helpful in identifying stressed plants.

The cameras are capable of zooming in on a leaf and detecting plants that are not getting enough fertilizer and water. Researchers will purposely reduce irrigation and fertilizer on specific areas of the test plots to determine how quickly, if at all, the equipment detects the stressed conditions of the plants.

The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues,” said Phil Hamm, director of HAREC.

The aircraft that will fly over OSU’s 50-acre plot is called a HawkEye, sold by Tetracam. The hull-less, battery-operated aircraft is about the size of a suitcase and weighs 8 pounds. A motor and propeller allow it to take off on four wheels and a parachute keeps it aloft. Photos can be seen here and a video can be seen here.

According to Hamm a new programmable Lindsey Irrigation center pivot system, installed at HAREC, and donated by Lindsey through IRZ Consulting, is a key component to the project. The pivot system will allow researchers to produce randomized, replicated treatments designed to look at deficit irrigation as well as reduce fertility application under normal cultural systems found in the Columbia Basin.

A delta-winged aircraft made of plastic foam will fly over the farm west of Boardman. Made by Procerus Technologies, called a Unicorn, a bungee cord launches it like a slingshot. More information on the Unicorn is available here.

OSU is leasing the aircraft from Boeing Research & Technology and n-Link, an information technology company in Bend, Ore., is also a partner in the project.

OSU will demonstrate the HawkEye during its potato field day at the Hermiston research center on June 26.

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