Kansas State a partner in international UAS research project

By Patrick C. Miller | April 01, 2015

Kansas State University will be working with partners in Australia on a precision agriculture research project using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to detect insect and disease outbreaks in crops before they occur.

The $1.74 million, three-year project is a partnership between the KSU campuses in Manhattan and Salina and Australia's Queensland University of Technology, the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, and the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

"In both Australia and the U.S., there is a lot of interest in the plant biosecurity field on how to increase the efficiency and detection rates of plant-based threats using emerging technologies," said Brian McCornack, KSU associate professor of entomology and the U.S. principal investigator. "Unmanned aerial systems technologies are promising because they're inexpensive and you can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time."

The project—called "Optimizing Surveillance Protocols Using Unmanned Aerial Systems”—was recently funded by the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. The organization is a consortium of several governmental research institutions and universities in Australia and New Zealand, supported by industry and governmental partners.

McCornack and other KSU researchers will conduct a series of studies that look at how accurately UAS can detect invasive insects and emerging diseases in commercial wheat fields, as well as how to optimize information collected during flights.

"Currently, early detection of an invasive pest requires a great amount of luck and sweat," McCornack said. "Typically, a landowner has to make an educated guess about where to go in a large field to check for infested plants. It works, but if a farmer or scout has several thousand acres to manage, it's not very time effective. Whereas with remote sensing, you can scan a wide area in a short amount of time."

During the wheat-growing season, researchers will use UAS to monitor Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned fields in key Kansas counties. Images captured by the UAS will be compared and used to identify sections with abnormalities caused by key insect pests or diseases.

The project will initially target the Russian wheat aphid and wheat stripe rust, also commonly referred to as "yellow rust." The team's findings may lead to new pest management strategies that use UAS and other imaging technologies for detecting invasive pests in horticulture and grain industries.

McCornack said that using UAS in this manner removes the current needle-in-the-haystack approach to monitoring crop plants.

"It's important that we're able to detect the next invasive pest," McCornack said. "Since 2001, the invasive soybean aphid has changed how we manage much of the 75 million acres of soybean in the North Central U.S. We believe that using UAS and working closely with farmers and scouts to regularly monitor crops and look for those changes early on can reduce the likelihood of repeating what happened with soybean aphid. Using this technology is not a guarantee, but it can help us understand how to quickly manage new pests that do establish."

In addition to testing for accuracy, researchers will look at how to refine the aerial images captured by UAS to provide landowners with the most usable data. For example, this could include comparing images taken at varying heights and resolutions — from satellite images to pictures taken on the ground with a mobile device.


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