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Aircraft-Mounted Sensors Detect Thirsty Plants

By Marcia Wood
September 23, 1998

Plants that aren't getting enough to drink can easily be detected by a package of aircraft-mounted sensors shortly after thirst sets in, a summer-long study has confirmed.

Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service conducted the test at a central California cotton field. They found that the devices are sensitive enough to alert growers--in time to take action--that crops need water. That's good news, because scientists anticipate that farmers in the future may increasingly rely on imagery from instruments mounted on aircraft and satellites.

Stephan J. Maas with the ARS Western Integrated Cropping Systems Research Unit, Shafter, Calif., led the experiment in collaboration with ARS colleagues in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. He plans to discuss preliminary results at a research field day this morning [Sept. 23] at the ARS and University of California Shafter research center. ARS is the principal research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The thirst-detector package includes three multispectral digital cameras--that detect light in different wavelengths--and a thermal infrared sensor that detects heat. Imagery from all sensors is processed through a computer. The California study is one of the first to show that scrutinizing imagery from both instruments may be the best way to sidestep inaccuracies that can occur when thermal imagery alone is used.

To run the tests, scientists turned off irrigation valves for a research field. That simulated real-life situations, in which irrigation pipes could become blocked, or automated schedulers malfunction, for instance.

Scientific contact: Stephan J. Maas, USDA-ARS Western Integrated Cropping Systems Research Unit, Shafter, Calif., phone (805) 746-8002, fax (805) 746-1619,

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