Drones Buzzing Toward Increased Crop Production

Unmanned Aircraft Research Team: (left to right) Joe Luck, Christopher Neale, Wayne Woldt, George Meyer, Derek Hereen, Yufeng Ge, (inset) Eric Frew

Drones Buzzing Toward Increased Crop Production

A new research project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska seeks to deploy unmanned aircraft (drones) in search of improved crop irrigation efficiency. The funding provided by the half million-dollar grant will be used to explore using new aerial robotic technologies to help farmers make informed decisions about managing their complex center pivot irrigation systems.

“This funding recognizes the ability of the University of Nebraska and the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, to lead this potentially game changing research,” said Christopher Neale, DWFI director of research and the lead project director. “We have a looming challenge of feeding a growing world population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050, effectively doubling the demand for food, and we will need to use every tool and opportunity available to rise to this challenge,” he said.

The innovative project will allow a team of engineers to fly drones over crops at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead, Nebraska, and collect large volumes of data using advanced remote sensing systems and in-field sensors. The project also involves research collaboration with the University of Colorado-Boulder, Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) residing in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department.

Eric Frew, Associate Professor and Director of RECUV, said, “This collaboration will be a win-win for both institutions, providing an opportunity for UNL to draw upon our depth of aerospace engineering expertise, while we learn more about agriculture and the challenges of increasing food production efficiency.”

The project will conduct regular flights of unmanned aircraft equipped with multispectral and thermal infrared imaging sensors, from planting to harvest, and also explore a new concept in which an unmanned aircraft is used to communicate with in-field soil water content and canopy temperature sensors.

“Essentially, we will be able to economically collect near real-time crop and soil water content data, that are not currently available, and use these data to create water management prescriptions for newer variable rate center pivot irrigation systems,” according to Wayne Woldt, one of the investigators, director of the NU-AIRE laboratory, and an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and Department of Biological Systems Engineering. With this sophisticated level of detail, farmers can respond quickly and more accurately to their soil conditions, increasing crop production while maximizing their water use efficiency.

Water for Food Global Institute

The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska was founded in 2010 to address the global challenge of achieving food security with less stress on water resources through improved water management in agricultural and food systems. We are committed to ensuring a water and food secure world while maintaining the use of water for other vital human and environmental needs.

The University of Nebraska has invested in four interdisciplinary, University-wide institutes — including the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute — that leverage talent and research-based expertise from across the University of Nebraska system to focus on complex state, national and global challenges.

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