Drones are increasingly being used throughout the world in order to gather data. This spring, VITO MapEO launched an end-to-end solution for carrying out drone-based analyses of agricultural plots of land. The use of this solution allows seed breeders, agricultural consultancy companies and other users to deploy drones in order to support their cultivation and selection programmes.

Guaranteeing food security?

The yield from agricultural crops has been increasing for years thanks to the continuous optimisation of agricultural applications. With DNA sequencing and advanced marker and gene technology, breeders can, for example, quickly assess whether the desired genetic characteristics are present in a new variety of seedling. However, in recent years, the yield has reduced for the majority of crops. But what is the cause of this? The lack of efficient phenotyping (assessment and selection of crops based on external characteristics) and accompanying experiments for the evaluation of new varieties are just two of the reasons behind this. According to the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation), phenotyping and accompanying experiments are necessary if we want to be able to keep up with the increasing global demand for foods and biomass in a sustainable manner.

More efficient phenotyping thanks to drones

Information regarding biomass, flowering time, disease resistance, yield and nutritional value of the new varieties is thus essential. Yet the traditional manual methods are time-consuming and only give a fragmented and often subjective picture of the experimental fields. VITO has found a solution to this with MapEO. The innovative application uses drone technology in order to achieve more efficient phenotyping. This is because drones and the accompanying image analyses are particularly well suited to measuring plant properties in a more objective, efficient and exhaustive fashion. For example, a drone only needs 30 minutes to fly over a 1-hectare test field of wheat and measure the growth of the crop up to a 3 cm degree of accuracy.

Pioneering technology

VITO supports companies in the implementation of drone technology within their existing cultivation programmes. Drone images render it possible to monitor all types of plant properties such as height, surface, disease resistance and health. The statistics that are produced here make it possible to deduce a great deal for each crop variety. For example, there is a clear link between the height of the crop and the yield in the case of green maize. The row closure for potatoes and sugar beets can then, in turn, be determined based on the leaf area. Thanks to a higher quantity and quality of data regarding the performance of new varieties, seed breeders can make decisions more quickly regarding which variety is suitable to bring onto the market. Benefit: MapEO is a user-friendly end-to-end solution that can be used throughout the process, from carrying out the drone flight up to and including the supply of the processed image data. The breeder can, of course, also combine all data with his/her own field and crop variety information.

Innovation that supports the farmer

MapEO offers us better insights into the growth of our crops, which allows us to offer better support to the farmer in selecting the best grain variety to increase his/her returns.

MapEO offers us better insights into the growth of our crops, which allows us to offer better support to the farmer in selecting the best grain variety to increase his/her returns.

Esther Monard
Esther Monard
Product Director Seeds - AVEVE Group

Development of new algorithms

In addition to the operational service, VITO also helps companies develop new algorithms for analysing plant-specific properties. An example of this is the Beetphen project, a three-year research project by SESVanderHave (Belgian manufacturer of sugar beet seeds, red.), CRA-W and VITO, financed by Belspo (Belgian Federal Science Policy). In this project, the research team monitored several test fields of SESVanderHave for three growth seasons using drones and multi- and hyperspectral cameras in order to evaluate disease resistance of their crop varieties.

Healthier and tastier food

It is therefore clear that these innovative applications that are now primarily used by breeders will also help the agricultural sector in the long run. In the future, farmers will also be able to carry out adjustments according to location and variety based on drones and satellites. This is, of course, also good news for the consumer, as a high and secure yield for farmers results in healthier and tastier food.