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New research aims to improve early disease detection in food crops

Farmers soon might be able to monitor the condition of their crops with just a simple swipe of a mobile app, thanks to new research at The Ohio State University.ECE students operate a multi-spectral camera

Part of the Crop Health Monitoring and Early Disease Detection in Food Crops project, researchers are utilizing drone technology to detect crop disease before it’s ever visible to the human eye.

“The ultimate goal is to have drones equipped with multi-spectral or hyper-spectral cameras fly over a crop, which can indicate not only the presence, but the development of the disease, all before you are able to see it visually,” explained Wladimiro Villarroel, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Villarroel and fellow ECE assistant professor Lisa Fiorentini are leading a team of students on a small farm located at the Ohio State Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory.

Crops naturally reflect light and other visible radiation, Villarroel said, which can fluctuate according to plant health. Drones equipped to measure that radiation can feasibly spot any development issues in real time. The cameras can even detect nitrogen levels in the soil.

From there, an app platform can one day provide a set of actions a famer should follow to reverse that damage, based on recommended scientific guidelines.

According to Villarroel, catching issues early can result in a better overall crop yield, and more importantly, can prevent the possibility of disease contaminating the plants and neighboring fields.

Since the Federal Aviation Administration does not currently allow unauthorized drone flights, ECE students improvised by attaching their multi-spectral camera to a 20-foot tripod for research on the main campus. One student is creating an algorithm to correct any camera misalignment. Authorized drone flights are being performed at Ohio State’s Western Agricultural Research Station in South Charleston—about 40 miles west of main campus—where additional research is being conducted.

“This has been a very attractive project,” Villarroel said. “Although, initially we were a little bit skeptical about bringing electrical engineers – interested in robotics and signal processing, all of that – to the farm.”

Currently there are nine students participating in the project, and they alsosee the value of the project for its potential positive impact on mankind.

Nan Visudchindaporn “I come from Thailand,” ECE student Nan Visudchindaporn said. “The plant is very special for our economy. If we can develop (this technology) and find the correlation between the disease of the plant, it will be helpful not only to farmers, but everyone.”

Student Weitong “Alex” Liang was working with a group to move the camera poles without damaging the crops.

“I really love image processing,” Liang said. “This is a hands-on project and you can learn a lot. In the classroom, the teacher or professor always tells you what you need to do, what you need to look for. But for this project, it is real."

“They see how a team project works," Villarroel said. "The stuff from the classroom – when you bring it to the real world – it can be completely different. There are many soft skills that have to be developed and this will let them mature in a more professional manner.”

Ohio State is currently working on a multi-state consortium research proposal to help fund further development of this technology. Representatives of the project also plan to give a presentation on their work on August 18 at the Western Agricultural Research Station’s Pumpkin Field Day.

The Early Disease Detection in Food Crops program is a multi-disciplinary project which also involves Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Advising Professor John Fulton, Professor Sally Miller and Associate Professor Jim Jasinski.

The initiative is part of the broader Food and Agricultural Transformation (InFACT) Discovery Theme program. Ohio State’s Discovery Themes were established to help advance critical societal needs in the realms of Energy and the Environment, Food Protection and Security, Health and Wellness and the Humanities and the Arts. 


contributions from Ryan Horns, Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering