Deciphering the optimum amount of nitrogen for any field is difficult, especially when constantly changing variables like plant color and soil content play tricks on the naked eye.

During the Spring Crops Field Day at the Kansas State University Southeast Research and Extension Center on May 24, drone technology was discussed as a possible solution for fast and accurate nitrogen recommendations.

Drones using remote visual sensors that measure normalized difference vegetation indices have potential to become the new standard for making crop management decisions like nitrogen supplementation.

“These sensors can detect and direct us to apply only the necessary amount of nitrogen for the soil,” said Ray Asebedo, precision agriculture specialist at K-State. “They can also address other management decisions like fungicide application.”

Drones carrying camera and NDVI sensing equipment fly autonomously over a field snapping pictures every two seconds at a height of around 60 feet. The more reflected infrared light the sensor detects from a plant, the more plant cells it is producing.

“The color of light reflected can tell us how large and efficient a plant’s factory is,” Asebedo said. “Then you will be able to optimize your biomass for your growing environment.”

While soil testing still provides greater accuracy, the drone technology’s algorithm performs calculations automatically after the data is downloaded. The opportunity for farmers to have access to accurate recommendations almost instantaneously is very promising.

The technology is still in its testing phases at K-State, but could be made available to the public in as little as two years. £

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