Drones to help power crop protection efforts


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WINNIPEG — It has been years since Nicole Nelissen scoured fields for crop disease.

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WINNIPEG — It has been years since Nicole Nelissen scoured fields for crop disease.

She’d spend summer days in Portage la Prairie, checking canola and wheat. Healthy? Yes. Wait — no. But how much of the crop was infected?

“Visually, that’s really hard to [determine],” Nelissen said. “Drone research, it will make it a lot more accurate and precise.”

Nelissen now checks computer screens — ones covered with data sets of crop cycles that her Portage Collegiate Institute students are analyzing.

The 20 Portage la Prairie youth are among upwards of 195 Manitoba students to use drones for Dutch elm disease and crop disease identification.

Research Manitoba recently announced funding of $500,000, over three years, to Volatus Aerospace’s Science Experiential Aerial Research (SEAR) program.

The program launched in 2021 with Seven Oaks School Division. At the end of the school year, pupils handled drones equipped with parachutes and sensors to measure Kildonan Park’s elm tree population.

Volatus Aerospace, along with students, is trying to create an algorithm to detect Dutch elm disease early.

It’s expanding to crop disease — canola, wheat, corn and so on.

“We didn’t have an opportunity like this when I was in high school, so it’s neat to see this for the students,” said Nelissen, a Portage Collegiate Institute science teacher.

Around half of her students are tied to the agriculture community or are interested in pursuing a career in the industry, she said.

Cassie Henderson is considering agronomy. The Grade 12 joined Portage la Prairie’s SEAR program in September as “a way to help me in the future,” she said.

She treks to the science lab every so often — to a cumulative 21 hours over the school year — to learn about aerial data collection and analysis from Volatus Aerospace.

Henderson will fly a drone this spring. It’s a test before June, when her extracurricular group and five other school divisions will visit the Integrated Crop Management Services plot in Portage la Prairie to steer aircraft and gather crop data.

Henderson plans to get a Transport Canada drone operation licence once the SEAR program ends.

“I just wanted to … get students engaged in using drones at a high level and seeing the potential,” said Matthew Johnson, Volatus Aerospace’s regional vice-president of education.

The former teacher began building SEAR in 2020.

He’s hoping to reach all Winnipeg school divisions with the Dutch elm disease segment of the program — there are slots for seven divisions — and more with the crop disease side. Some schools began with Volatus in the fall; another round will begin in March.

Students tracking Dutch elm disease will head to Kildonan Park this June to survey the 98-acre plot via drones.

A University of Winnipeg graduate student will collect ground-based data, assessing the same trees’ health. She’ll compare findings with Volatus, with the goal of fine-tuning an algorithm to detect Dutch elm disease early.

“If we can detect it early in the season … then we could potentially be able to save those trees,” Johnson said.

By the time the fungal disease is spotted, it’s often too late — an orange dot and a chop are destined for the tree.

Thirty-eight Manitoba communities are on a provincial Dutch elm disease management program. The disease costs the City of Winnipeg millions: the municipality has outlined $26.3 million for the tree canopy, which includes Dutch elm disease management and tree pruning, in its 2023 preliminary budget.

Portage la Prairie students are analyzing the life cycles of crops like canola and wheat. Maybe next year, the group will focus on disease tracking, Nelissen said.

Canola growers use aerial imagery to determine when to spray fungicide, said Chris Manchur, a Canola Council of Canada agronomy specialist for eastern Manitoba.

He called the SEAR program “a great idea” to stir students’ interest.

“We have many tools in our toolbox to help protect canola against a variety of diseases, but we always need to be focused on new innovations,” Manchur added. “It’s always a battle between the pathogen and us.

“It’s kind of like an arms race.”

The spread of disease among cereal crops like wheat is weather dependent. One year could elicit “significant loss,” while another could be minor, said Ashley Ammeter, a farm specialist with Manitoba Crop Alliance.

The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation doesn’t track crop loss due to disease. However, such loss consumes “a narrow segment” of insurance payouts, said David Kaminski, a Manitoba Agriculture crop specialist.

Canola and wheat are the most likely to become diseased, he added. It’s often too late to save the plants once there’s evidence of infection of the most common canola and wheat diseases, he said.

“I think it still needs to be proven how effective remote sensing could be in any kind of preventative fashion for our major crop diseases,” Kaminski said.

Research Manitoba has never funded an aerial robotics initiative like the SEAR program.

“We are thrilled to be a part of this important initiative,” Karen Dunlop, Research Manitoba’s CEO, wrote in a statement.

Around 40 per cent of SEAR program spots were available as of Feb. 10. School divisions pay $5,000 each to participate. Research Manitoba kicks in $10,000 per division.

» Winnipeg Free Press

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