Lauryn Luescher | Mustang News

The Precision Agriculture and Automation Club, with bioresource and agricultural engineering professor Bo Liu as the adviser, works with the San Luis Obispo Strawberry Commission to test different ways to grow strawberries by measuring various factors of plant health from the sky.

Liu decided to bring aerial photography into this project in order to get a more accurate representation of plant growth.

Aerospace engineering graduate student Neil Wolfe has a remote pilot license and was hired for the project to fly the drones. He used his knowledge as a pilot to take photos of the fields for Liu to then analyze.

“Every two weeks I go out and take pictures. I set the drone on an autonomous route above the field that I make using an app on my phone and it takes all those pictures and stitches them together overhead one really big picture of the field,” Wolfe said.

Once Wolfe takes these photos — about 400 from each of the two fields — Liu and his students work on stitching it all together to make one large image where they crop out each variety of every plot and analyze how they grow over time. Then they compare them to find out which varieties are the best to resist disease.  

“We apply the same disease to all of the crops. We just want to see how different varieties react to the same disease and find the best variety for farmers,” Liu said. “We share the data with the farmers and the growers so they can see if you have this disease which varieties can survive [and] can still produce strawberries without a big [loss].”  

Students are also using the drone cameras in agriculture by transforming color images to learn more about the plants. Wolfe is installing an infrared camera so the drone will have four different cameras and be able to detect wavelengths.  

“Getting different wavelengths of light on the plants, you can transform the color images, which gives a clue to which plants are being watered, which plants are dying, which need to [be] watered more and plant health in general,” Wolfe said.

After the pictures from the drones are stitched together and analyzed, Liu sends the data to the Strawberry Commission and the students working out in the field.

“We have the data wizard systems to collect data and to open source so everyone has access to its software and hardware and also we have the cloud computing structure, so you can plug in your data and send it to the cloud computing system and give advice to farmers,” Liu said.

Cal Poly alumnus Caleb Fink,  a productions automation engineer for the Cal Poly Strawberry Commission, is working on projects to increase the efficiency and labor effectiveness for growers. Currently there is the Agrobot, which is the latest technology for harvesting, follower carts that assist the pickers and a Lygus vacuum and a spray rig to remove some of the harmful bugs in the strawberry plants.

“The growers have come to the commission saying ‘Here is what we want, this is our problem and we want some engineers working on it,’ and so I’m filling that position and we have interns, too,” Fink said. “We are just trying to make [the Lygus vacuum and the spray rig] a little bit better.”

Throughout the entire process, all of the students involved alter their technology to learn more about the crops.  

“I’ve been working on it for maybe five or six weeks — and every week, I go out there and try something,” Wolfe said. “There is always something that goes wrong. I have to try again and last week was the first time I actually got everything together, so it’s just a lot of going out and making sure the sensors are working.”

Wolfe explained that this project is something unique to Cal Poly because of the quality of both programs.

“We have a pretty big agriculture program and we have a great aerospace program and I think having the opportunity to put both those really good programs together is not something you don’t really find everywhere,” Wolfe said. “The professors that teach it are really willing to let you go out and do whatever you can or whatever you want.”

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