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Drones begin descent on NH orchards

Sunday Newsr Correspondent

November 16. 2013 1:24AM
University of New Hampshire doctoral student Matt Wallhead, at left, and assistant professor of plant pathology Kirk Broders with the unmanned aerial vehicle they're developing to help apple farmers survey for disease and fungus. (RACHEL ROHR)

DURHAM -- A new experiment at the University of New Hampshire is gaining national attention because of one simple word - drone.

Kirk Broders, assistant professor of plant pathology, prefers to use the term "UAV," unmanned aerial vehicle, when talking about the technology he is helping to develop that could help apple farmers detect infections earlier and with greater ease.

Broders said the idea was born in discussions about apple scab, which causes dark "scabs" on the leaves and skins of apples and is persistent in the damp Northeast. While they are harmless and don't affect flavor, the blemishes render the apples unmarketable. Apple farmers must walk their orchards daily to monitor for the problem.

"It's such an important pathogen and consumes so much time and money and fungicides to control," Broders said.

Broders worked with Rotary Robotics out of Massachusetts to develop a "hexa-copter" and is now experimenting with mounting different cameras with different abilities to it that will make it easier for farmers to monitor their orchards and to detect infection early.

His goal is to bridge work that has been done with multispectral image analysis with the UAV technology.

"You have this entire light spectrum of which humans can only see a small portion, and then you have either side of that spectrum that could be picked up by different cameras. When a plant gets infected, it can show early signs of infection in the spectrum that humans cannot see, and so there has been a fair amount of research looking at these spectra," Broders said, but most of that work has been done in greenhouse settings, or images taken from an airplane.

"What we were interested in doing was to pair both of these technologies, the multispectrum imaging and the UAV, to get a new perspective," Broders said.

Ph.D. student Matt Wallhead has been experimenting with different cameras, including a regular Canon point-and-shoot and one adapted to shoot infrared images.

"Infrared will be able to pick up early signs of infection as well," Broders said.

Broders said there is no long-term agreement to mass produce the UAVs, but they are looking for a larger distributor.

They want to keep the technology affordable for everyday farmers.

"There are a number of companies that are producing these types of UAVs with cameras on them, but they are substantially more expensive than the one we have," Broders said.

The 15-pound UAV, fully loaded with batteries and cameras, cost about $2,500, and he said they can get a multispectral camera for about another $1,000.

Although his work focuses on apples, Broders envisions the technology being used to detect a variety of ailments, from water stress to insect infestations on a variety of crops.

In France, UAVs are being used for vineyard management.

Broders estimates their UAV is about five years away from the marketplace. For now, testing continues on the various ways the technology might be used to help apple farmers.

"We are always trying to think of ways to improve overall orchard management," Broders said.

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