A new research project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska seeks to deploy unmanned aircraft (drones) in search of improved crop irrigation efficiency.

The funding provided by the $0.5 million grant will be used to explore using new aerial robotic technologies to help farmers make informed decisions about managing their complex center pivot irrigation systems.

The innovative project will allow a team of engineers to fly drones over crops at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead, Nebraska, and collect large volumes of data using advanced remote sensing systems and in-field sensors. The project also involves research collaboration with the University of Colorado-Boulder, Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV).

The project will conduct regular flights of unmanned aircraft equipped with multispectral and thermal infrared imaging sensors, from planting to harvest, and also explore a new concept in which an unmanned aircraft is used to communicate with in-field soil water content and canopy temperature sensors.

“Essentially, we will be able to economically collect near real-time crop and soil water content data, that are not currently available, and use these data to create water management prescriptions for newer variable rate center pivot irrigation systems,” according to Wayne Woldt, one of the investigators. With this sophisticated level of detail, farmers can respond quickly and more accurately to their soil conditions, increasing crop production while maximizing their water use efficiency, the researchers say.