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MSU student uses drones to map barley emergence
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MSU student uses drones to map barley emergence

Erik K

Erik Killian

Montana State University doctoral student, Erik Killian, is combining his interest in remote sensing with his passion for plant sciences by using drones to map barley emergence.

Killian began working with remote sensing technology during his junior year of undergrad when his advisor became interested in its use for measuring emergence timing. It is most ideal to have early and uniform crop emergence, but reality is, that doesn’t always happen. Measuring emergence can be tedious as is and if emergence ends up taking place over several days, the process can be even more drawn out.

“To measure emergence over time, not only do you have to go out in the field and measure emergence once, you have to do it day after day until the last plant emerges. That’s when we started thinking about remote sensing to make that a lot easier,” Killian said.

Instead of spending day after day scouting for emerged plants over various parts of a field, Killian and his advisor thought it may be easier to simply fly a drone over the whole field. The drone takes multiple pictures during its flight path and then, using a computer program, the photos are stitched together to create one large overview of the field.  

Once the photos are stitched together, the idea is to sparse out the freshly emerged green plants from the brown soil. The technology, FIELDimageR, has been used successfully to sparse out green from brown when it comes to measuring emergence in heartier crops like corn, but the technology falls short when used on emerging barley.

“Right now, the problem I am trying to get around is the size. FIELDimageR doesn’t have the resolution capabilities to see these really small barley plants,” Killian stated.

Killian’s project is in its early stages and so far he has only flown over winter barley fields at MSU’s Post Farms. This spring he plans to map emergence in spring barley crops at both the Post Farms and at the Central Ag Research Center in Moccasin, Mont. It is no wonder FIELDimageR has difficulties picking out emerging barley because Killian plans to start flying over fields approximately 10 days after planting.

“We are looking for day-to-day changes in the number of plants in a plot, so we are trying to find them when they are only like two inches high,” Killian explained.

Killian ultimately hopes this project leads to him developing a program that will have the resolution capabilities to sparse out small, freshly emerged shoots of barley. It is also of priority to Killian that the program be openly sourced so it can be publicly accessible. 

Killian went on to say, working on a project like this is really fascinating because as drone and remote sensing technology advances, consumers ask more questions, and as the questions are asked, researchers are forced to look for answers that push the technological boundaries. This constant leap-frogging, Killian speculates, really makes for endless possibilities when it comes to drone use, especially in agriculture.

“I think the technology will follow the questions that people ask,” Killian said astutely.

Killian’s work earned him a $1,500 grant from MontanaView, the Montana branch of AmericaView, which is a partnership of remote sensing scientists. Killian will use the grant to not only support his own remote sensing work, but to help educate others on the uses and possibilities of remote sensing.

The Prairie Star Weekly Update

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