Two small, remote-controlled aircraft have been flying over potato fields in the Hermiston area as part of Oregon State University’s efforts to help farmers bolster yields and cut costs.
While taking photographs of potato plants, the aircraft, which weigh less than 10 pounds each, have flown over OSU’s research farm in Hermiston as well as a commercial farm west of Boardman. OSU scientists are using various cameras on the aircraft that detect different wavelengths of light. One of these wavelengths, infrared, is reflected by plants, but unhealthy plants reflect less of it. So in infrared photographs, sick plants are much darker.
Researchers aim to see if the cameras, which are capable of zooming in on a leaf, can detect plants that aren’t getting enough fertilizer and water. They purposely reduced irrigation and fertilizer on some plants to see how quickly, if at all, the equipment picked up the stressed plants. If it works, the scientists hope that the project will continue in subsequent years so they can test the cameras to also find plants that are plagued by insects and diseases.
“The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues,” said Phil Hamm, the director of OSU’s center in Hermiston. “This in turn can save money. It’s an early warning system for plants with issues as well as an opportunity for growers to reduce costs by being more efficient in water and fertilizer use.”
Potatoes were chosen as the focus of the research because they are one of the most difficult and expensive crops to grow and are prone to devastating problems caused by diseases and insects, said agronomist Don Horneck, who is the lead researcher from OSU on the project. It typically costs Hermiston farmers $4,000 or more per acre to grow them, he said. That equates to about $500,000 for the average size of field in the area, he added.