Why Drones are Valuable Tools for Plant Breeders

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Drone industry analysts have pegged agriculture as one of the top sectors for future drone growth. Drones save farmers time, money and give them valuable data about crops that help them be more profitable. But drones have even more potential for plant breeders.

Its simple really, farmers plant one kind of soybean plat in a 10 acre field, while a plant breeder might have 1,000 different kinds of soybean plants in a single acre. In a recent article in the Daily Register, (local Illinois paper) University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers explained the significance of this, “The farmer can fairly quickly determine whether the single variety in a field is ready to be harvested. However, breeders have to walk through research fields several times in the fall to determine the date when each potential variety matures.”

Generally, plant breeders check the plants every three days to see how the different varieties are doing. Obviously this is extremely time consuming. The researchers at the University of Illinois started using drones to scan and observe the plants instead of walking the fields. They used multi-spectral images and were able to tell the difference between mature an immature plants based on changes in the light frequency they reflected. They plugged this information into a self-made algorithm and found that using drones achieved 93% of the accuracy of physically walking the fields and checking plants, while saving a ton of time.

Farmers in Africa are already using this technique to improve plant breeding. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Southern Africa first tested using drones in 2013 and found they can save a lot of time. While it would normally take 8 hours to walk the fields to check the plants, the same task can be done in 10 minutes with a drone.

This efficiency is especially important for African farmers as they have to find new breeds of maize and wheat that are more resistant to the climate changes they are currently experiencing.

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