October 7, 2022

Texas A&M University AgriLife program drone technology

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Since southern rust outbreaks can cause heavy losses, experts say it’s crucial to act fast. Drones are able to identify it quickly and more efficiently.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Researchers at Texas A&M University are helping farmers solve a big problem. Southern rust is killing their crops, and thanks to new drone technology in their AgriLife program, they’re able to identify it faster and more effectively.

“We can see a plant looks, like, healthier and darker green, right? That’s easy for the human eye,” said Seth Murray, who is a professor at Texas A&M. “I grew about 17,000 plots in my program, so having somebody look at all of them every three or five days when we fly, that would just take forever.”

Murray breeds the corn they use for research. His work with PhD student Aaron DeSalvio, who flies the drones, allows them to make sense of complicated data using red, green, blue, and near-infrared cameras to identify which crops show signs of southern rust.

“What’s really amazing about what these guys did, what the team did, was take from just drone imagery and predict the rust and when the rust will occur within different varieties within the corn breeding program,” Murray added.

DeSalvio shared Murray’s pride in their teamwork. “It is pretty humbling to be a part of that and the dream, one day, would be for anyone to have access to this technology,” he said.

Thanks to the drones, they can survey 25 to 30 acres of land at a time and about 7,000 varieties of corn. The data they collect now can one day be used by industry professionals to create products for farmers to buy. Since southern rust outbreaks can cause heavy losses, experts say it’s crucial to act fast. 

“We’ve seen up to 50% losses in the States in prior years, and I know that overseas we’ve seen even as high as 80% in some countries,” DeSalvio explained. “So, it’s very important to identify it as early as you can and treat it accordingly.”

Thanks to the funding from the Texas Corn Producers Board, USDA, and Texas A&M University, the drones are identifying diseases like these faster and at a lower cost. Researchers hope that it can be utilized anywhere corn is being grown to prevent any massive yield losses.

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