New smart aerial drone technology developed by the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Wheat in a Hot and Dry Climate (ARC Wheat Hub) could literally change the landscape of Australia’s billion-dollar wheat industry, by delivering cost-effective mechanisms for farmers to plan and deliver precise water and nutrients to their crops on a need-by-need basis.

Developed by the University of South Australia with the Plant Accelerator at The University of Adelaide and LongReach Plant Breeders, the drone senses a vegetation index—signifying the crop health, moisture and nutrient content, making it easier and more efficient for farmers to manage agricultural land and for breeders to generate new varieties.

Until now, drones required an expensive multispectral camera to scan agricultural land and indicate where there is a need for additional irrigation or application of fertiliser to selected crop segments.

The new technology delivers detailed information using RGB (red, green, blue) cameras—which is a standard accessory carried by drones. The drone identifies healthy plants exhibiting a high vegetation index—shown as bright green regions—and mature, stressed or dead plants and soil manifesting a low vegetation index are displayed as yellow areas. This data is then processed offline and modelled into useful information through deep learning (or machine learning)—all without the additional cost of a multispectral camera.

Image: Aerial drone flying over wheat field.
Image credit: The University of South Australia.