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Cutting to the Chase

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Drone Technology Saves Time, Improves Production

Trial-and-error research is a time-honored tradition, but with the global population now at 7.9 billion – and expected to top 9.7 billion by 2050 – time is a luxury that we may not be able to afford as scientists race to find a way to feed all those people.

The 2018 Farm Bill created the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative (AG2PI) to bring scientists from diverse fields together to expand knowledge of genomes and phenomes that are important to agriculture. The genome is a complete inventory of genetic features that make an individual unique, while the phenome is the manifestation of the genome; the complete diversity of sizes, shapes, forms, and colors that an organism may express throughout its life.

According to Max Feldman, research geneticist with the ARS Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research unit in Wapato, WA, the goal of AG2PI is to help breed crops and livestock that are nutritious, resilient, and sustainable. “These projects use technology and data science to improve the speed and accuracy of decision-making in breeding programs,” he said.

Feldman is leading an AG2PI project that involves the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, to measure the size, shape, growth rate, and spectral information of thousands of plants or breeding lines at multiple stages throughout the plant life cycle. The effort is part of a larger program headed by Iowa State University.

UAVs can be outfitted with many different sensors, some of which are like a cell phone camera, while other types measure light spectra invisible to the human eye or estimate the surface temperature of research subjects.

“The data we collect helps document the developmental lifecycle of research subjects – crop plants or livestock – and provides us with numerical measurements of traits that we can use for breeding and performance prediction,” he said.

One such project concerns the Colorado potato beetle (CPB), one of the most destructive and persistent insect pests of the potato crop. While growers generally spend about $115 per acre to control CPB, the insect has developed resistance to about 50 trade-name insecticides. That’s where AG2PI comes into play: Feldman is teaming up with entomologists to quickly find a solution to the CPB problem, before the beetle grows any better at escaping our defenses.

“UAVs can reliably assess CPB defoliation of potato plants in field trials and [can see] that the insects exhibit preference towards certain cultivars,” he said. “These results have promising implications for the use of UAVs for field scouting for CPB damage and to assess CPB resistance on more plots/potato varieties than would be possible by a single research group, thus accelerating our ability to identify and develop new CPB-resistant potato varieties.”

The knowledge gained through AG2PI will help make farming more profitable, produce more food, use fewer resources, and reduce the amount of chemicals released into the environment, Feldman said. “Improving our ability to measure biologically important indicators of nutrient or pathogen stress will help farmers manage their crops using precision agriculture approaches. Application of this technology in breeding programs will help us breed and release plant varieties that outperform current industry standards by making better, data-driven decisions earlier in the breeding cycle.

“Our growing global population and the uncertainty associated with impacts of climate change and global politics make food production one of the most important humanitarian issues facing society today,” he said. “Developing regionally adapted plant varieties and embracing technologies or agronomic practices that can reduce resource consumption are important goals on the path towards food security and the sustainable production of food and fiber crops.” – By Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications