Sky Camera Plane Flies Over Fields In Search For Sick Plants

HawkEye takes look from on high for stressed crops.

Published on: May 7, 2013

An unmanned aerial vehicle will be flying over potato fields in the Hermiston, Ore., region June 26 in a demonstration that farmers are invited to watch as a part of tomorrow's plant monitoring technology.

The Potato Field Day event at the OSU Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center from 8 a.m. to noon will provide an opportunity for researchers like station Director Phil Hamm to review operation of the HawkEye remote control aircraft which has been flying over the potato field shooting infrared photos in search of sick plants.

Potatoes at the Hermiston  that will emerge in mid-May, providing the first chance for the UAV to perform flyover inspections, using cameras which detect various wavelengths of light, one of which is infrared plant reflection which can measure the health of the plants, since sick foliage reflects less light.

This remote-control flying camera, called the HawkEye, is used by Oregon State University to get a look at potato fields in an infrared scan for unhealthy plants.
This remote-control flying camera, called the HawkEye, is used by Oregon State University to get a look at potato fields in an infrared scan for unhealthy plants.

The study also includes other wavelengths of light to determine which will do best in identifying the troubled plants, explains Hamm.

While the technology may be too costly for growers to own themselves, since when maintenance expenses are considered, "the actual cost may be more than I believe a farm or grower would want to pay," says Hamm.

And, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that only certified pilots control the unit, even though it is not manned on board.

Additionally, software to analyze the data  is expensive. "In the future, if this technology works like we hope it will, growers and farms will contract a company who will provide the service," he believes.

The HawkEye has been scanning the station's 50-acre potato planting three times a week and will continue to operation through harvest.

What Hamm wants to find out is whether the cameras, which zoom in on individual leaves, can detect plants that are getting enough water or fertilizer. The scientists will reduce these inputs on some plots to deliberately stress plants, something which should show up as a darker color on infrared scans.

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If things work well, Hamm says the station will continue the test work for several years in an effort to help farmers take corrective action on sick plants before crop losses occur, or the pest or disease damage becomes too extensive to correct.

"The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly," he explains, "so the grower doesn't have any reduced yield or quality issues.

"This can save money. It's an early warning system for plants with issues as well as an opportunity for growers to reduce costs by being more efficient in water and fertilizer use."

Hamm picked potatoes as the test crop on the 300-acre farm because of the high value of the crop, which can cost producers as much as $4,000 an acre to grow.

The HawkEye and its Tetracam video unit weigh about eight pounds. The plane can fly for a maximum of half an hour at a time.

While it uses a motor for takeoff, a parachute keeps it in the air as the remote control operator directs its flight to a limit of 400 feet.