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High-tech farming: Drone research supports organic efforts at local farm

Suresh Muthukrishnan, Furman professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and director of GIS and Remote Sensing Center.

A drone may not be the first piece of equipment you’d associate with organic farming.

But a new Furman research project demonstrates that cutting-edge technology has its place on the pasture.

Andrew Freeland ’21 is conducting research in precision agriculture with Greenbrier Farms of Easley, South Carolina. He’s using a drone equipped with a Multispectral camera, which Furman purchased this summer through a grant from South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and additional support from the John M. Garihan Endowed Fund.

Each snap from the drone’s built-in camera system is composed of six images. Software weaves the images from hundreds of shots into a single large photograph. These photographs can then be used for reference as base layers for other data sets, such as soil samples, as well as to assess intra-field differences in pasture health and productivity.

Because of COVID-19 campus restrictions, Suresh Muthukrishnan, professor and department chair for earth, environmental and sustainability sciences, piloted the first summer flights while Freeland worked with the data at his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

“On the images I’ve produced, you can see differences,” said Freeland, who is eager to move back to campus in mid-August and fly the drone himself.

Muthukrishnan first used a drone for a class several years ago in a freshman seminar that examined the ways generations of humans have pursued seeing things from the skies. From there, he began to incorporate drones into his Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class and to use them for research.

In GIS, “we plot information and try to make more sense of the data by looking at the geographic patterns and trends over time,” Muthukrishnan said. “It’s not just the pictures. We can convert the photographs into data and then we can use the data for decision-making.”

Freeland has had a personal drone since high school, but it was a hobby until he started to realize it could be much more.

“There’s a lot more responsibility than a video game, but it is a controller with two joysticks and buttons and a screen in front of you,” he said.

With the new drone, Freeland and Muthukrishnan can program a flight path, and the drone will fly itself, taking hundreds of pictures as it goes. They also use a GPS ground station that provides centimeter- to millimeter-level accuracy for the data collected.

Freeland created flight plans for the research site, tested them with his own drone at a Nashville site and then sent them for implementation at Greenbrier.

The new drone has six built-in cameras which take photos in full color, only blue, only green, only red, near infrared and middle infrared wavelengths. These wavelengths are specifically selected to study vegetation health and stress. When the photographs are “stitched” together, photo after photo, they reveal patterns and issues that often wouldn’t be detectable from the ground.

“If we can identify the plant stress before it’s visible to the human eye, we can address the stress appropriately,” Muthukrishnan said. “How can we tweak things around where the production is a little less than optimal and make it better?”

Using sophisticated algorithms, the same photographs can be used to calculate total amount of biomass or crop yield. For small scale farmers, raising cattle or goats on these pastures, that’s crucial information that equates to meat production from the animals.

But it’s much more than just farming.

“Agriculture is not the only application,” Freeland said.

Andrew Freeland ’21.

Drones are part of infrastructure inspection, parcel delivery, forest management, traffic monitoring and more. In developing countries, “drones are frequently being used to send blood samples or critical vaccines to remote villages as well as for relief operations during major disasters,” Muthukrishnan said.

He said the demand for trained drone pilots and researchers is only going to grow as more industries and organizations find ways to apply the data drones can collect.

“They are going to fill the sky, whether we like it or not,” Muthukrishnan said.

The images captured by six different cameras onboard the research drone in different wavelengths to help study pasture conditions.
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