Drones will help KSU wheat breeders.
MANHATTAN, KANSAS, U.S. — The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in mid-December announced it has awarded $975,000 to Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kansas, U.S., for research into finding ways to use unmanned aerial vehicles to develop techniques for breeding better wheat varieties.

Researchers at KSU have been using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, for mapping agricultural crops, and have used the drones to collect data on thousands of plots, including work in Kansas, Mexico and India.

The data then provides the university’s researchers with a deeper understanding of in-field conditions so they may improve breeding programs in the United States and internationally.

“Perhaps the greatest bottleneck currently in plant breeding and genetics is effectively generating precision measurements of plant characteristics in the field,” said project director Jesse Poland, assistant professor of plant pathology and agronomy at Kansas State University. “The goal of this project is to deliver in-season yield predictions by building models that combine genetic information from DNA sequencing and crop physiology that we will gather from UAV measurements on tens of thousands of breeding lines.”

Poland said KSU will use information from UAVs to evaluate large populations of candidate varieties under field conditions in wheat-breeding nurseries, then build a database that breeders may use when developing future varieties.

The UAVs are expected to provide “millions of collected images” that researchers will match with field values to develop a phenotype of wheat varieties, he said. A phenotype is a complex map of an organism’s observable characteristics — such as its biochemical or physiological properties — and the influence of the environment on those characteristics.

Funding for the research project, which is titled “Wheat Yield Prediction and Advanced Selection Methodologies through Field-Based High-Throughput Phenotyping with UAVs,” began Nov. 1, 2016, and will last for three years.

“Plant breeding is really a numbers game,” Poland said. “If we can use new technologies like remote sensing with these low-cost UAVs, then we provide the breeders with the tools to look through many more candidate varieties and increase the chances of finding ones that are really excellent and can become the next best varieties to release to farmers.”

NIFA made the award to KSU through the International Wheat Yield Partnership. The project includes scientists from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.; Cornell University; and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a network of 15 centers across the world that involves nearly 10,000 scientists, researchers, technicians and staff.