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Development of drones to map and forecast crop diseases for the agricultural industry

Researchers in the Department of Life Sciences are working in partnership with the agriculture services company Agrii to develop drones that could detect plant disease before anyvisible signs show.

The drones will use multispectral cameras, which use special filters to capture reflected light from selected regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Capturing reflected light using several lenses and different filters simultaneously allows scientists to look at how objects reflect parts of the electromagnetic spectrum differently.  Stressed plants typically display a ‘spectral signature’ that distinguishes them from healthy plants.

Alongside the development of surveillance drones and multispectral sensors, the researchers are writing software to analyse the resulting crop images and classify them based on disease progression.

First steps

Primary partnership discussions focused on the commercial potential of Project Investigator Dr. Oliver Windram's initial investigations into identifying the early signs of individual plant stress from disease as well as possible ways of strengthening existing technology.  As a result, the partnership has begun by developing a tool to initially help forecast Septoria, a key fungus affecting wheat, in the context of other field stresses.  By beginning to understand how different stresses impact each other and their ‘spectral signatures’ the researchers will be able to develop solutions to better map and forecast crop diseases. 

Working together will accelerate our research but also provide a solution that Agrii could translate for the farming community and deploy rapidly."

Dr. Oliver Windram

NERC Research Fellow, Department of Life Sciences

It is hoped that this will lead to more effective agricultural spraying strategies, helping farmers to use fungicides more effectively.  Reducing yield loss to diseases like Septoria will allow farmers to grow more food, more efficiently and on less land, benefitting the agricultural industry, the public and the environment simultaneously.

The project is co-funded through the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership.  Corporate Partnerships helped facilitate the collaboration not least by identifying such funding sources.

You can read the full news article here.

Septoria fungusAbove, a photo of Septoria wheat fungus taking hold.