HERMISTON, Ore.—Two small, remote-controlled aircraft are expected to start flying over potato fields in the Hermiston area this month as part of Oregon State University's efforts to help growers more efficiently use water, fertilizers and pesticides to bolster yields and cut costs.
While taking photographs, the aircraft will fly over 50 acres of OSU's 300-acre Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC), as well as several crop circles totaling about 1,000 acres at a research cooperative farm west of Boardman. The flights will take place at least three times a week until the potatoes are harvested in the fall, beginning with a test run Wednesday at the Boardman farm.
OSU researchers will use various cameras on the aircraft to photograph the potato plants. The cameras will include ones that detect different wavelengths of light. One of these wavelengths, infrared, is reflected by plants, but unhealthy plants reflect less of it, and in infrared photographs sick plants are much darker. Researchers will also explore using other wavelengths of light to determine which ones will be most helpful in identifying troubled plants.
Researchers aim to see if the cameras, which are capable of zooming in on a leaf, can detect plants that aren't getting enough fertilizer and water. They'll purposely reduce irrigation and fertilizer on some plants and will then see how quickly, if at all, the equipment detects the stressed plants. If it works, the scientists hope that the project will continue in subsequent years so they can test the cameras to also find plants that are plagued by insects and diseases. The idea is to help growers take action before larger crop losses occur and it becomes more difficult and expensive to control the problem.
"The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues," said Phil Hamm, the director of HAREC. "This in turn 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."