Remote-sensing technology on cusp of advancements

A research lab in Alberta has developed a biosensor to help forecast for fusarium head blight in wheat and barley crops

BANFF, Alta. — Technology that can directly zap specific weeds or detect disease in fields before the spores hit the plants is coming, but adoption among farmers may lag.

Advances in intelligent agriculture were discussed at the Prairie Cereals Summit held Dec. 11-12 in Banff.

A biosensor for fusarium head blight forecasting in wheat and barley is coming out of the laboratory of Susie Li, senior researcher for disease and weed management at InnoTech Alberta, a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates.

She is working on developing a small black box mounted on a post in the field that watches the crop around the clock. When the fusarium spores are released into the air and before they drop to the spike of the wheat, the sensor detects it. If the level of spores is greater than an established number it sends a signal to the farmer’s cellphones.

The devise has chips coated with an antibody to create the specificity to a certain disease.

“You can put this in your field and this is a real time forecasting for the disease. It will monitor your crop 24-7, whenever a disease is coming, and it will send a signal to your cellphone, even at night, so be prepared,” she said.

The biggest challenge is the transition from the lab instrument to a portable device for the field. More work is also needed to develop correlations between spore counts and a disease outbreak.

Farmers are familiar with site-specific seeding and fertilizer applications but spraying pests is the last to use remote sensing.

“These prescription maps have been elusive in pest management because they are ephemeral. They don’t last long in pest management,” said Tom Wolf, spray application specialist of Agrimetrix Research and Training in Saskatoon.

“Pest density assessment is time consuming and does not last very long. It can change throughout the season very quickly,” he said.

However, work is ongoing around the world, he said, citing an example in Israel, where researchers are developing technology to enable a sprayer to differentiate between crop and weeds.

“If we give an instruction to the nozzle to do something, it takes 10 milliseconds to respond to the instruction,” he said.

Canada may be somewhat behind remote sensing compared to the United Kingdom and Australia, said agrologist Kristina Polziehn. She is a Nuffield Canada scholar and spent three years studying remote-sensing technology in use around the world.

“Remote sensing is not a new technology. It has been in existence for 50 years but we have seen a lot more about it in the news in the last five years because of the adoption of drone technology,” she said.

In Australia, cotton farmers use sensors to decide when to irrigate. Australia’s macadamia nut producers are also using sensors to identify the amount of evapotranspiration from each tree. They are able to spray a product to slow that process down and sensors indicate whether it worked. New Zealand carrot seed producers use water sensors to decide when and how often to irrigate.

In the U.K., collaboration among producers and scientists helps farmers use smart agriculture techniques for nutrient management. Variable-rate fertility and sensors can be used to determine properties in the upper layer of the soil or assess the variability in a crop canopy.

Canada has crop yield forecasting information available and more collaboration is needed to make full use of this data, said Polziehn.

“Now that we know there is this technology and there is a push into the digital ag sector, I would like to think in the next five years we are going to see those digital tools more readily available, especially now that other countries are launching stuff that we can look at,” she said.

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