Using computers to translate remote images of crop fields into prescriptions for irrigating, fertilizing and controlling pests is the next technological advance in farming—as soon as researchers can figure out how to do it economically.
And that’s where Roger Leonard and Ralph Bagwell, scientists at the LSU AgCenter, come in.
Earlier this year they received one of the largest grants ever awarded AgCenter researchers, $1.26 million from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. That’s right, NASA, the same folks that put men on the moon. In addition to space exploration, NASA controls sophisticated satellite imaging technology, and they want more people to take advantage of it.
Leonard and Bagwell, both headquartered at the LSU AgCenter’s Macon Ridge Research Station in Winnsboro, are leading a team that in the next four years, and probably beyond that, will help bring more practicality to this technology so more farmers can use it.
“No one else is doing this kind of research. We’re going to develop an economic benefit that will help farmers adopt this technology,” Leonard said.
Though the money comes from NASA, the project is administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems.
Start with cotton
Leonard and Bagwell are starting with cotton, but what they learn will have implications for all row crops.
“Cotton is an expensive crop to produce. If we can reduce the inputs, that will be a dramatic savings to the farmer,” Bagwell said. “That’s the advantage of this precision farming technology.”
The project is multi-faceted and excruciatingly complex, but the three main goals are these:
To learn to interpret the remote images by studying how they correlate with what’s happening in the field.
To develop prescriptions for field inputs, including irrigation—not only how much but when to apply.
To make this technology user-friendly.
One of the first hurdles is learning how to read NASA’s satellite images.
Summer for learning
“This is the summer for learning software,” Leonard said.
They have already started conducting experiments. In May, they flew a plane over a field to see if it could apply water in the same computer-prescribed pattern at 110 miles per hour as on-ground equipment had done earlier at 10 to 12 miles per hour. They used water for testing instead of fertilizer or defoliant.
“We’re still analyzing the data. But it appears to have a level of accuracy that has field practicality,” Leonard said. “Use of planes can be a more efficient means of application.”
Edwards Barham of Barham Bros. Flying, Rayville, is the cooperating pilot and provider of aircraft for this project. A big part of the research is figuring how to program the computers that operate the application equipment in the plane. Assisting with this are Dale Magoun from University of Louisiana-Monroe, head of the computer science department, and Randy Price from agricultural engineering and Bob Downer from statistics, both from the LSU AgCenter.
In addition, Leonard has hired two graduate students, Srinivas Vinnakota and Daniel Culli, from the LSU Department of Geography for the summer to help with developing and refining the software.
The AgCenter scientists eventually will also use Barham’s planes to record images and use these in addition to the satellite images provided by NASA
Divulge plant growth
A basic premise of the project is correlating biological knowledge with these remote images. The images can divulge what’s happening with plant growth, for example.
Knowing exactly the plant growth patterns in a field may reveal where insects are, since they can be attracted to highly vegetative plants. If scientists can look at images and know precisely where insects are, then they can determine exactly where to spray insecticides.
“Insects are not randomly spread through a field. They’re only in certain spots. They tend to clump. If farmers can pinpoint those spots and add chemicals to only those spots, it will save them money and the environment. This will reduce insecticide and defoliant costs in cotton,” Bagwell said.
Most of the research will be conducted on Jay Hardwick’s farm near Newellton. Both Hardwick and his consultant Howard Anderson are part of the research team.
Steve Hague, an agronomist at the LSU AgCenter’s Northeast Research Station in St. Joseph, is an expert in irrigation, and he will lead the effort to determine use of this technology to help with the timing of irrigation. The remote-sensed images also reveal soil moisture levels, which is critical to knowing when to irrigate.
Ken Paxton, an LSU AgCenter ag economist, will analyze the data for costs and benefits to the producers.
“This is among the largest, single grants we’ve ever received for research and a tremendous tribute to our scientists who conceptualized this,” said Dr. Bill Brown, vice chancellor and research director.
The use of remote-sensed images taken from airplanes and satellites will help create precise prescriptions for use of chemicals in fields, thus dramatically cutting down on their use. This will ultimately save farmers money, improve profit margins and have tremendous benefits for the environment.
This is the promise. Two LSU AgCenter researchers and the team they have assembled are taking the first steps toward a giant leap for agriculture.
Linda Foster Benedict
(This article was published in the summer 2002 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)