Equipped with a variety of sensors, the machine potentially can detect disease, look for irrigation or fertilizer problems, gauge plant height and diameter and predict crop yield
BORING — It's enough to bring out the inner radio-control geek in anyone who sees it. Buzzing like a swarm of bees, a six-rotor helicopter revs to life and vaults straight up, rising quickly above thousands of potted trees at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Nursery.
It's only about 3 feet across and its spindly legs make it look like a flying spider, but this is no toy. Loaded on board is sophisticated GPS technology that sends it to pre-programmed points and maintains a constant altitude of 25 meters, slightly more than 80 feet. Dangling from its abdomen is a digital camera. A swiveling housing keeps the camera level, even if the craft pitches in the wind.
Pilot Heather Stoven, an Oregon State University research assistant who learned to fly the machine three days ago, flips a switch and takes a series of photographs of the trees below.
Now comes the compilation and analysis that's drawn a team of university researchers from Florida, Arkansas and OSU to the nursery, one of the state's largest.
The aerial images are downloaded to software that, in its simplest application, identifies and counts the potted trees. Oregon's nurseries raise millions of trees and bushes for landscaping, and inventory control is critical. Counting by hand, however, is labor-intensive and expensive.
But the technology blossoms with promise. Equipped with a variety of sensors, the machine potentially can detect disease, look for irrigation or fertilizer problems, gauge plant height and diameter and predict crop yield — not to mention spot where the field fence needs repair.
"An immense number of practical applications," says James Robbins, a University of Arkansas agriculture extension service professor. "It's a low-cost method of crop monitoring."
Robbins and other researchers flight-tested the craft Wednesday and Thursday at nurseries in Canby, Yamhill and Boring. Research will continue through the summer, but the early results look good, said Jim Owen, an assistant professor at OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center.
J. Frank Schmidt & Son provided initial grant funding that kick-started the project and brought together a team of collaborative agricultural researchers.
Farmers have long known the value of aerial imagery, but photographing fields or orchards from planes was costly and of uneven value. Sam Doane, production horticulturist at J. Frank Schmidt, experimented with mounting cameras on helium balloons, but found them impractical.
The breakthrough came when Reza Ehsani, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, suggested modifying a multi-rotor craft available to radio control enthusiasts. The machines are exceptionally quick, nimble and far more stable than fixed-wing model airplanes.
It's powered by a lithium ion polymer battery, can stay aloft from nine to 40 minutes and can carry five pounds of camera gear. A basic unit costs from $7,000 to $10,000 — an expense within reach of many nursery or farm owners. Additional equipment, ranging from simple digital cameras to infrared sensors that can detect nutrient deficiencies, can add hundreds or thousands to the cost.
Researchers are leery the public will associate the technology with armed Predator drone aircraft that monitor and attack enemies in Afghanistan. They carefully refer to it by the clunky acronym of MRRSS, or Multi-Rotor Remote Sensing System.
Another worry? That paparazzi will use the craft to spy on and photograph celebrities.
Nonetheless, farmers are intensely interested.
In Florida, Ehsani said orange growers need help combating "citrus greening," a bacterial disease that reduces production and can kill trees. The disease appears at the top of the tree canopy, requiring spotters to move through groves on bulky elevated platforms. The scouts miss 40 percent of the disease because of human error, Ehsani said.
The MRRSS can be programmed to repeatedly visit, hover over and photograph points in the orchard, field or nursery yard, he said. The information can improve worker efficiency.
"Instead of walking down every row every three months, you can tell them to go check that tree in Row 5," he said.
Arkansas corn and sorghum farmers could use that kind of information, said Dharmendra Saraswat, a University of Arkansas professor. The state's soybean board approved funding for the project sight unseen, he said.
In Oregon, inventory-dependent nurseries and Christmas tree farms may be among the first users in the coming years, said Owen, of OSU.
"It's going very well," he said. "We've made great progress but there's definitely a long summer of research ahead of us."