Unmanned helicopter to be used in crop research

Rothamsted Research, one of the UK’s top tillage research centres, has obtained a high performance radio remote-controlled helicopter, octocopter, drone equipped with four distinct cameras.

The custom-built equipment will enable high-throughput collection of data from experimental crop plots at each of the Institute’s sites as well as at collaborating organisations’ trials. Collection of data with this method will give unique perspectives on crop growth and plant functioning, and will vastly extend capabilities for screening crops of different genetic background for performance, nutrition, stress, pathogen and disease responses.

The UAV is an octocopter, a standard 8 rotor battery powered unmanned aerial vehicle, as typically used in the film industry. Four cameras have been added, two of which at any time can give a live feed of their picture to a monitor on the ground. One camera, which can take videos and stills is on a fixed mounting, pointing forwards, and is used to identify where the camera is flying. The other three cameras are all mounted on a stabilized platform which can be tilted remotely from the transmitter, and comprise a high definition RGB camera, a thermal infrared camera and a hyperspectral camera

Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, from Rothamsted Research, said: “We are very excited to have been able with the support of the  Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to obtain this unique equipment. The UAV will be deployed over the full range of crops studied at the institute and will enable detailed evaluations of growth and functioning of the plants. It will enable multiple measurements to be made within a short space of time with pre-programmed low level flight paths. It is anticipated that many thousands of plots will be monitored sequentially or in parallel in blocks in projects currently screening germplasm variation amongst thousands of lines combined with multiple treatments and replications”.

Professor Maurice Moloney, director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research, commented: “I am delighted that here at Rothamsted we continue to advance our capacity to carry out high-quality research that will provide solutions to pertinent issues of food security. This is the first time that an agricultural research organisation in the UK has obtained an UAV equipped to this standard. The technology will substantially increase throughput and precision of analysis, and make a substantial contribution to current programmes of crop improvement. The technology will compliment ground-based measurements initially but eventually aerial-based observation will replace the need for low throughput non-automated manual measurement.”