Nursery industry uses high tech
Researchers from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Oregon State and the University of Florida are combining a souped-up remote-control helicopter, digital camera and image recognition software to help nurseries, orchards and tree farms keep track of vast acres of plants.
"Businesses know that linking real-time inventory information with sales is critical to their success," said Jim Robbins, Extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. "For nurseries, obtaining that real-time information is expensive, time consuming and often imprecise, which leaves them relying on estimates for their current availability."
Enter the research team of Robbins, Dharmendra Saraswat, Extension engineer for the U of A Division of Agriculture; Reza Ehsani, assistant professor, and Joe Maja, research associate, both of the University of Florida, and Jim Owen, assistant professor-nursery crops, Oregon State.
The team began work in 2008 to find a cost-effective means of using remote sensing to do a job normally performed by nursery workers walking scores of acres and hand-counting plants.
The team tested a system in September 2010 to members of the nursery industry in Oregon.
"The initial demonstration flights over both container and field-grown ornamentals validated to growers and researchers alike that this aerial system shows great promise for the nursery industry," Owen said. "Although not yet fully tested under nursery conditions, this aerial system may provide a low-cost method to check inventory, monitor for weed or pest pressure, or monitor plant stress, on an 'as-needed' basis."
The team uses commercially available equipment with some adaptation to make the system work.
The flying machine is a six- to eight-rotor, remote-controlled helicopter, which provides a stable platform for the off-the-shelf digital camera that sends back video and stills to the ground crew. The third part of the formula is image recognition software that can teach itself to recognize individual trees or plants and count them.
"The team has already used this approach to count the number of citrus trees in a grove with an accuracy of 94 percent," said Saraswat, who tested it in Florida.
The researchers are hopeful they'll have a system that can be used out of the box by year's end.
The research has been funded with nursery research grants from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
According to Ross Dumdi at Bailey Nurseries, Yamhill, Ore., "the nursery industry is very excited about this research project, as it offers the potential to dramatically improve the accuracy of our inventory process in a cost-effective way."
Robbins said the project illustrates two very valuable lessons.
"One, that open collaboration between industry and academia can result in major, positive breakthroughs," he said. "The other lesson learned, is just how rapidly technology is changing and potential opportunities that exist for the nursery industry."
Video of the project can be viewed online at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/NWREC/archive.php?id=22.
For more information about remote sensing, GIS and other information, visit www.uaex.edu or contact your county Extension office.