University of Delaware
delware environmental institute

News Journal: Drones help farmers minimize water, fertilizer use

It came from above, hovering over the corn field, soaking up the light. It saw things the farmers couldn’t: photosynthesis in the green leaves and heat radiating off arid soil. The UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly called a drone — is what researchers hope will pave the way for the future of agriculture. It’s not from another planet or a war zone, it comes in peace to help solve the major problems farmers face while trying to feed a growing country.

Photos of fields taken outside the visible spectrum give researchers detailed insight into life’s two biggest needs, nutrients and water, and guide how to waste less of both. It’s called precision agriculture.

At the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Chris Hartman has been imaging fields from above for nearly a decade. After a hiatus in unmanned vehicle research because of federal regulations, he began experimenting with drones again last year.

“At its heart, what we’re doing in agriculture is trying to feed the population, given nutrient constraints, given runoff concerns, given constraints of water and soil, and needing to protect all those things,” Hartman said. “What better way to use the technology than to assist in making that happen?”