Speed of data collection takes flight with drones

Digital agriculture developments allow UAVs to collect a new level of data using advanced sensors

Technology opens up grand new possibilities of scale for plant science, transferring what once was slow, inefficient research by humans into rapid collection of vast quantities of data by unmanned vehicles, robotic systems, and sensors embedded in the field.

“In the past, we were largely constrained by how much time we had to evaluate every individual plant or research plot,” said Mitch Tuinstra, professor of plant breeding and genetics; Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research; and scientific director of the Institute for Plant Sciences. “The challenge in a modern agriculture research context is that we need to look at a lot more plants.”

drone flying above crops

To do so, aerial drones and a variety of sensors create new streams of information from monitoring crops. Advanced statistical methods then automatically sift through raw data for meaningful insights that can drive real-time decision-making. And predictive models use that data to run simulations of crop behavior under different conditions, providing hypotheses that can be tested in the field or recommendations to influence farm management.

Many of these approaches underlie the ambitious research taking place at the Indiana Corn and Soybean Innovation Center, the building on the border of Purdue’s Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE). There, scientists in the TERRA project, funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, study how different genetic variants of the sorghum plant could be used to produce biofuels. Their team uses the $15 million high-tech facility as a staging ground for drones and the modified sprayer, known as a PhenoRover, for high-throughput data collection on their fields.

The building and the work it supports showcase how cutting-edge agricultural research spills out beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. Faculty and students from the School of Aviation and Transportation Technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute design and fly the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that scan the fields with cameras. (These record both visible and invisible wavelengths that identify plant features and health, such as leaf shape and infrared color.) Faculty in geomatics engineering in the Lyles School of Civil Engineering help determine precisely where each individual plant lies in the field, to enable consistent, repeated study. A high-speed internet connection beams data at speeds as high as 20 gigabytes per second—the equivalent of four HD movies every tick of the clock—back to Purdue’s main campus, where computer scientists store and analyze the information.

Katy Martin Rainey, associate professor of agronomy, also utilizes data collected by drones in her research on soybean breeding. With different types of cameras, her drones collect canopy-level phenotype information about crop color, size, and shape that can be combined with ground-level measurements of temperature, soil moisture, and other conditions to make faster observations and predict yield and other valuable traits.

“What we do with that data is build models to characterize the growth and development of the crops,” Rainey says. “Usually what plant breeders do is put out plots and maintain them; they might take some notes, but they’re really just waiting until they harvest them for yield at the end of the season. I’m trying to transition toward more data-driven selection: let’s collect data and use it quickly to start making decisions months before harvesting.”