Normally when we talk about drones we’re talking about military action, Amazon package delivery, and government’s spying on citizens – not crops and biofuel. But crops and biofuel production are just one of the newest methods farmers and scientists are using to determine which variety of grass (more specifically which variety of sorghum) grows best for production of biofuels.
Last year the United States Department of Energy delegated a $30 million to find the best variety and how to grow it. Several teams are working with 10-acre plots of different varieties of the grass. The drones are being used to fly over the fields, creating models and taking photos. Land drones are also being sent out into the fields to take measurements of growth from the ground. Each week this takes the 25-lb drone about 20 minutes to create a digitized and easily understood progress report.
Each aerial drone in this project is equipped with a LIDAR unit, visible imaging gear, and cameras that can capture thermal, infrared, and hyperspectral images. The UAV-based system is capable of measuring plant characteristics such as height, stalk thickness, leaf angle, and more.
“The big picture goal is to get a big increase in the yield for this bioenergy sorghum,” says Near Earth Autonomy engineer Paul Bartlett. An increase in crop yield “could really make [sorghum] a sustainable bioenergy source.” Near Earth is working with Clemson University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center on this project.
The crop being measure, sorghum, is a significantly less resource-intensive crop than corn. Sorghum requires much less water and growth time than corn – it is also much hardier, able to withstand periods of drought and high-temperatures. The crop shows promise to aid in biofuel growth in areas rapidly facing desertification due to global climate change. The goal is to gather enough information to determine the best varieties of sorghum and eventually make it into a sustainable biofuel energy source. So far research has shown that sorghum produces half the greenhouse gases of traditional petroleum products.
As the global work force begins to truly shift towards adaptation and mitigation of climate change unforeseen partnerships between science, technology, and sustainable development are sure to continue to arise.