May 29, 2019 | WSU Insider
WSU researchers are using satellites and drones to search for better wheat varieties to feed a growing world. The team launched a new project this spring, developing techniques that allow satellites and drones to identify and study wheat varieties from overhead. This research is funded by a USDA-NIFA grant.
The team looks to speed up research toward identifying better, more productive wheat varieties. If successful it will give growers powerful new tools to improve farming. Wheat currently feeds more than 1/3rd of the human population and is grown on more acres than any other crop. To meet the growing worldwide demand and stay ahead of pests, pathogens and a changing environment, wheat breeders strive to develop improved varieties. Phenotyping (measuring the way plant genes are expressed physically) allows selection of the best plants to breed for improved yield, grain quality and disease resistance. Machines can sense crop traits faster. With modern satellite imagery matched together with drones, visual and infrared imagery can be collected from wheat plots. Drone cameras can collect data with the hope that this matching process will enable identification of wheat varieties from orbit.
Part of the project’s challenge is to learn whether wheat varieties and their physical characteristics can be differentiated by their spectral data. “Sensors are getting better every day,” said team member Sindhuja Sankaran, an associate professor and sensor technology researcher at WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “As resolution increases and camera costs drop, we have more powerful tools to sense how crops are performing.” Improved sensors will help to speed up the selection of new varieties, as well as help predict yields, monitor crop performance and protect plants from drought.