The balloon goes up on crop monitoring

The balloon goes up on crop monitoring
precision farming
feature
The balloon goes up on
crop monitoring
By Gary Alcorn
F
rom model planes to big balloons to maybe baby
helicopters — Toowoomba-based agricultural engineers are testing various airborne platforms to carry
digital cameras for live crop mapping.
Their aim is to enable farmers to regularly check crop
vigour and health from the air without the expense of
chartering commercial fixed wing aircraft.
The principles and practices developed here could
have wide application across a range of crops from cotton to turf.
Queensland DPI research engineer Troy Jensen and
his colleagues in Toowoomba are concentrating on lowaltitude, ground controlled options to build a database
which logs and displays crop health in terms of various
visible spectrum and infrared images.
High accuracy GPS equipment delivers precise ground
location datum points.
“Our first trial used a remote controlled model aircraft
(RCA) carrying a Kodak DC3200 digital still camera —
one megapixel, 24 bit. The aircraft flew about 120
metres above the sorghum paddock and the preliminary
test images gave usable datasets in the form of 80 high
resolution (1344 x 971 pixels) images.
“Other test flights at another site last year investigated
the spectral responses of a sorghum crop to varying rates
of fertiliser and how spectral data relates to crop yield
and protein,” said Troy.
Initial results using sophisticated software show this
low costs system works — with variations in crop densi-
Ken Cleminson preparing his model aircraft for another ‘sortie’ to check
on the health and vigour of this Darling Downs crop.
26 — THE AUSTRALIAN COTTONGROWER
ty and greenness (chlorophyll percentage) correlating
with leaf and soil moisture content measurements.
“For instance, the darker the crop the lower the levels
of chlorophyll which means some stress is present.
Healthy crops have more chlorophyll which reflect more
sunlight and thus show up as a lighter colour.
This visual data downloaded into a laptop from the
camera’s memory cards is the first step in a complex correlation process.
Fellow researchers such as Dr Steven Raine take
simultaneous soil and plant samples of the target areas.
Other measurements include hand held spectroradiometer readings, traditional airborne (one metre ground resolution) images as well as high altitude imagery from
SPOT and Landsat satellites.
Recently the team inspected the new $280 million
Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane — with a balloon — to map
and assess the health of the re-laid grass playing surface.
Flying a balloon and its payload in the sheltered environment above the fully enclosed playing field was
straightforward.
Both the colour and infrared images confirmed the
new grass surface was uniformly healthy and looks great
for the return clash between England and the Wallabies
on June 26, Troy said.
He also sees other roles for balloon-mounted video
cameras.
“We are doing test flights over feedlots to detect lingering wet spots on the pen floors which can encourage
odour formation.”
It’s quite feasible that some time in the near future
growers will be able to use balloons to capture data about
their crops, download to the farm computer and using
modified software to determine the crop’s nutrition and
disease status and estimate yields.
Are balloons the ultimate vehicle for this project?
Maybe, but Troy Jensen has his eye on a remote-controlled Kawasaki helicopter which could hover and take
the required pictures without the need for two ‘stabiliser’
staff.
All he needs is $100,000. In the meantime he will
continue to fly the low tech but effective helium balloon.
This project is part of a Queensland Department of Primary
Industries (DPI) research on grain yield and protein mapping,
and as a PhD project at the University of Southern Queensland
(USQ), Toowoomba. The Grains Research and Development
Corporation (GRDC) and USQ funded this project.
For more information contact Troy Jensen on 07 4688 1307.
APRIL–MAY 2004
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