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More eyes on potatoes: unmanned aircrafts soon launch over potato fields

By Kaitlin Loukides
Published On: Jun 16 2014 06:48:52 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 16 2014 06:49:05 PM CDT
POCATELLO, Idaho -

Let's face it - Donna Delparte's office is cooler than yours. Period.

Delparte is a researcher at Idaho State University's Dept. of Geosciences and is up to her ears in technology surrounding unmanned aircraft systems complete with pieces of technology you only though existed in the movies.

So, until you have a couple of drones lying around on your desk, you might be able to keep up with Delparte.

But, Delparte is using these UAS' to help farmers improve their sustainable farming techniques, currently in particular, potato farmers.

"We want to look at the topics of: food security, increasing crop yield, and early detection which is something that is very important for (potato) growers and can help them increase their yield and productivity," Delparte said. "We want to also help them catch things early before they progress."

Delparte and her crew of researchers aren't the first ones to use UAS' for crop production. She said a farmer in northern Idaho, Robert Blair, was the first to utilize this technology.

So, Delparte decided to take it to a whole new level.

These unmanned aircraft systems will fly between 30 and 50 feet above the field and collect a series of high-resolution photographs that can detect problems in the farmer's field.

"We are collecting what we call 'multi-spectral data' so that's in the visible spectrum, near infrared," Delparte said. 

Basically, this means these photographs can get super close three-dimensional photographs of things we can't see with the human eye.

"In order to get high-resolution and high-quality data, you need to be able to collect it yourself. And when I'm talking 'high-resolution data' I'm talking centimeter-level resolution. So, with conventional satellites, we get pretty good resolution these days, but with these drone platforms, we can get down to the centimeter level, which is leaf-scale for potato crops," Delparte explained.

Sometimes plants will show stress in the non-visible part of the spectrum, and that's when these drones can come in and detect all of that with these tiny cameras, which hook onto the bottom of the UAS.

Delparte grew up on her family's farm and said there are a number of issues potato farmers have to deal with during different times of the growing season. She said right now, farmers have to worry about the biting insects that spread disease from the plants that are effected. Later in the season, farmers might have issues with a type of fungus developing on the potatoes while they try to harvest them, and that's not if they are already dealing with other types of pest species making their way into the crop.

Once a series of these photos are taken, they are then uploaded to a specific program the department developed which can scan everything into a 3D model onto a large screen.

This can help farmers react sooner than before and Delparte believes this can eventually transform the entire agriculture industry as a whole and improve sustainable farming.

In a meeting with economic leaders from across the state back in March, the state's Director of Commerce Jeff Sayer said there is a growing need for this technology, and it's something we need to jump on in order to put Idaho on a competitive, national level.

He said this could improve agricultural output and hopefully make Idaho the leader when it comes to certain exports.

Delparte also believes this technology is something farmers have been slowly inching toward for years, now, and said this type of technology can help create more jobs since there is always a need for this type of efficiency in the farming industry.

Delparte said ISU is just one partner in a group of her colleagues from across the state who are working to collaborate in order to solve this both statewide and nationwide problem of food security. She said the Idaho National Laboratory, the University of Idaho, and Boise State University are also putting-in their expertise.

"Idaho really does have the potential toward becoming a leader in this technology," she said.

Delparte added that it is currently illegal to fly any type of commercial drone without the proper permits from the FSA. 

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