Putting Drone Images To Work For Cotton

Christi Short
Christi Short

• By Christi Short,
Lubbock, Texas •

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been noticing more and more people taking up the hobby of picture taking with a drone — also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle.

This method of capturing images seems to be gaining momentum, especially in farming communities. I love seeing these aerial images posted on social media channels and hung in offices and homes, displayed for others to see.

But is there a way to take these photos and get some data from them we can use on the farm? Wouldn’t this “birds-eye-view” be useful in scouting fields, measuring plant height and growth or developing defoliation plans?

Data Gathering

With essential funding from Cotton Incorporated, researchers with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension are doing exactly that. Dr. Juan Landivar, professor and center director with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center, Corpus Christi and Weslaco Stations, is creating a platform for this type of information. He is taking these pretty images and putting them to work to gather data to use on the farm.

The idea of using drone imagery in agriculture has actually been around for some time. But in the past several years, the image quality and resolution have improved drastically. With higher resolution images, more data can be pulled and analyzed to create algorithms, measurements and patterns.

In Landivar’s words, it’s almost as if the computer systems that can read and use this imagery are much smarter than we are. Some can even fly themselves if you just tell them where to go!

Practical Applications

droneBefore this imagery was used, producers and researchers walked rows of farmland, scouting for issues and taking measurements. Next came tractor-mounted sensors that were able to do some of this work as they passed through the field.

Now we can have a high-resolution aerial view of a particular section of a field — about 100 acres at a time — that allows a computer to analyze more than 1 million different data points instantly. This high-resolution capability is the real game-changer, as lower quality images can provide data errors or inaccurate field maps.

“Remote sensing (drone and UAV) imagery can accurately measure patterns of canopy growth, maturity, leaf drop, open bolls, areas of damage and so much more,” Landivar says. “I’m excited about this work because UAV allows to accurately, swiftly and cost effectively measure the spatial variability of every square foot of a cotton field. In 30 minutes of flight time, you can map a 100-acre field and create 3D models of those plants.”

Landivar and his research team started working on plant height measurements and canopy growth rates and are now moving into accurately determining boll count, defoliation schedules and pre-harvest crop estimates.

Dr. Ed Barnes, senior director of agricultural and environmental research at Cotton Incorporated, is excited about the work Landivar and his team are doing.

“Dr. Landivar’s group has been key on taking these images and turning them into numbers and data that will work on the farm,” Barnes says.

“We know producers don’t have the time to leisurely browse images. They need to be able to get the information they need in an easy and usable way. Dr. Landivar’s team has really put in the legwork and developed software to utilize this data.”

Future Opportunities

Landivar says the research funding from Cotton Incorporated has been vital to getting the program started and serving as a springboard to gather support from other grants and funding entities. Cotton Incorporated’s support provides the opportunity for these researchers to collaborate with engineers, computer scientists and agronomists.

Over the next five to 10 years, collaboration with technology companies, such as Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and others, will be key in providing ultra-high-quality resolution images and analysis tools to growers via cloud computing platforms.

To learn more about remote sensing research, please reach out to Landivar at jalandivar@ag.tamu.edu or Barnes at ebarnes@cottoninc.com.

Christi Short is the Cotton Board’s regional communication manager for the Southwest. Contact her at cshort@cottonboard.org.

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