Robots and drones: Are they the future of Georgia farming?

By: Brad Nitz

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ATHENS, Ga. - Researchers suggest humans have 30 years to double our food supply, and a local university said robots will help get the job done.

Engineers at the University of Georgia have developed robots and software that will monitor crops to gather information for geneticists to help increase food and fiber production.

“Arable land that is in production worldwide is a finite resource,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said.

He said growers must be more productive with the farm land they already have. Black said crops can be genetically developed to increase yields, resist pests, and withstand droughts and high temperatures.

“We’re very certain we’ve got to increase this food and fiber production somewhere between 70 (percent) and 100 percent to feed this globe,” Black told Severe Weather Team 2 meteorologist Brad Nitz.

For generations, strong plants have been bred together to increase yields, but it can take decades to discover what genetic traits make some plants more resilient than others. Researchers at the University of Georgia want to speed up that process. 

Dr. Changying Li, a professor at the UGA’s College of Engineering, and his team are developing robotic technology to monitor crops for geneticists as they’re maturing.

“[Geneticists] don’t have time, they don’t have human power to measure all these plants, tens of thousands of plants manually,” Li said.


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Li showed Nitz how researchers are observing young cotton plants growing on UGA’s Iron Horse farm south of Watkinsville.

A crop spraying tractor retrofitted with sensors and cameras monitored growth patterns and data, and a cart manned by students gathered critical information on the young plants.

“That information helps geneticists identify genes that can choose more specific traits more precisely,” Li said.

In the second year of their program, members of Li’s team is now using unmanned technology to monitor crops. They are using a drone equipped with three cameras to measure temperature and make 3D models of the plants.

“Thermal cameras can basically tell you the drought resistance, the temperature of the canopy,” Li said.

UGA engineers are now working on GPS and computing technology for ground robots as well. They said their goal in the next year is to deploy a fleet of air and ground robots, all working together, to gather in depth genetic information without the need for man power.

Black said that will make better farmers.

“A prescriptive use of technology, of crop protection, chemicals, fertilizers, irrigation water, a prescriptive use of that will make us even better stewards,” Black said. “That’s going to help us meet this objective of feeding the world in 2050.”

Researchers at UGA said their next obstacle is data management. Last year, they collected 30 terabytes of information and this year they’re expecting to collect a petabyte of data.

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