Using ‘Big Data’ Can Prevent Big Problems On The Farm

There were a lot of eyes to the sky during a recent University of New Hampshire Extension workshop on aerial field scouting for crop production, writes Guy Steucek on


Gary Robertson, associate professor at North Carolina State University, has been working on field assessments of precision agricultural practices for three decades. His lab has a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Robertson said collecting and processing big amounts of data is necessary in order to use crop inputs efficiently and prevent problems before they get out of hand.

Scouting fields has been in practice since the dawn of agriculture, but newer technologies have enchanced scouting techniques.


“There are many platforms armed with a variety of sensors to monitor crops. Satellite, manned aircraft, UAV, ground vehicles and hand-held sensors are now giving us new pictures of our crops,” he said. “UAVs can give us resolution down to 1 inch, and their cost is a few thousand dollars and dropping. They can handle a payload of 5 pounds and fly for an hour. Roughly 45,000 farmers got UAVs for Christmas last year.”

An ultra-violet sensor can “see” problems caused by pests or pathogens long before they are evident to the human eye. Robertson studied a 25-acre cotton field using normalized vegetation difference spectra. The processed image showed healthy plants were green whereas diseased plants were yellow and red. To the human eye, the crops were green, he said.

Sensors can be used to identify different plant species and varieties. Some applications can be used to identify weed distribution, irrigation effectiveness, nutrient management and chemical applications.

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