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K-State Research and Extension

Drone technology tracks water needs


What are we doing

Using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to fly infrared and near-infrared cameras over a corn field helps Kansas State University researchers determine which areas are getting too much, the right amount, or not enough water.

The cameras help the researchers record canopy temperature, a measure of the electromagnetic radiation being released by the plants. Canopy temperature is thought to be a good indicator of plant stress and can provide continuous information on water status, water use and how a plant is functioning metabolically.

The project includes ground sensors to measure soil moisture and a spot thermal camera to measure actual canopy temperature. They also track air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, sky temperature, and temperature reference data from panels laid in the field.

Our impact

K-State pioneered the art of irrigation scheduling, largely based on a measure known as evapotranspiration, a combination of water evaporation from plant leaves and the soil’s surface. ET-based irrigation scheduling, introduced in the early 1980s, uses these estimates to determine the amount of water to apply and when to apply it.

This project improves even further upon irrigation scheduling, using precision agriculture technology to determine more fully exactly what parts of a farm field need water, when it needs it, and how much. Armed with that information, farmers can better know how to move center pivot sprinklers, and how to extend irrigation timing so that they don’t hurt their crop yields.


To learn more, visit K-State Research and Extension's Irrigation page.  



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“This will give us the ability to understand spatial (whole field) crop water needs. We will be able to more efficiently water the entire field, based on where water is needed at a given time …  and farmers know how their soils and their field respond to that water.’”

- Ajay Sharda, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, Kansas State University