New technology identifies nitrogen deficient crops from the sky

Updated on 11/14/19:

Drones have become a useful tool for farmers who utilize the bird’s-eye view for crop surveillance, but the unique perspective only scratches the surface of the technology’s potential. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a technology that uses drones to identify nitrogen deficiencies on a plant-by-plant level using imaging analysis.

Drone imaging identifies N-deficient features on corn plant leaves

Developed with the support of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the technology uses a computer vision technique that examines the leaves of the corn plant for certain characteristics that correlate with nitrogen deficiency. That information is fed into a model that incorporates factors like weather, soils and more to prescribe the right amount of nitrogen fertilizer to fix the issue.

Identifying nitrogen needs

The process brings an unprecedented level of precision to nitrogen application. By identifying nitrogen deficiencies in a single plant, farmers are able to identify the exact area where additional application is necessary, according to Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, a lead researcher on the project and a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Instead of looking at whole fields, we can now look at specific plants,” Papanikolopoulos said. “This represents a paradigm shift because we now have the capabilities to automate the process in a way that saves farmers a lot of money and potentially reduces the use of fertilizers.”

Papanikolopoulos worked with David Mulla, who is a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate, to make the technology a reality. While Papanikolopoulos brought the computer science background to develop imaging capabilities, Mulla ensured it would be practical and valuable for farmers in the field.

“We had to make sure this was something farmers would be on board with. You can have the fanciest technology in the world, but if it is too complex or too expensive, it won’t be useful,” Papanikolopoulos said.

To bring it to the field, the University of Minnesota recently licensed the corn nitrogen deficiency technology to Minneapolis-based Sentera, which specializes in providing technology solutions to agriculture. The company plans to continue conducting field tests with an expected commercial rollout in 2019.

Once available, Papanikolopoulos envisions the nitrogen deficiency technology will be yet another option for farmers who embrace precision agriculture. Looking into the future, identifying nitrogen deficiencies in plants using drones is only the beginning when it comes to the potential of the technology.

“I am confident that in a year from now we will have very detailed information about how each plant in a field is growing,” Papanikolopoulos said. “We will be able to look at the canopy, leaves and stem to decide the best kind of fertilizer to use and the ideal timing for the plant.”

As part of its continued investment in nitrogen research and education, the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council provided initial funding through the corn check-off. Without it, Papanikolopoulos said the project may not have been a reality today.

“We are very thankful the corn growers had the vision to see the potential in this technology to support it at its early stages,” Papanikolopoulos said.

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