A team of scientists from the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida just earned a $1.2 million grant, which aims to use modern-day technology to detect disease and plant stress in agricultural crops.

UCF mechanical engineering associate professor Yunjun Xu is working with UF agricultural and biological engineer and associate professor Reza Ehsani to develop an automated system that would use robots and specialized sensors in the air and on the ground to detect and report disease in citrus groves and strawberry fields.

“One of the benefits of our project is making it automated, which can improve accuracy and reduce the cost of disease and stress detection,” Xu said.

UCF’s team, which includes Suhada Jayasuriya, a former UCF mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, and graduate students, is developing several robotic components for the ground vehicle that would be used – something akin to a small tractor. Xu is also creating a simulation environment to ensure the prototype system will work in the field.

Currently, people have to go into the fields and search for symptoms of different diseases. This is time consuming, expensive, and prone to error. Early detection of a disease is not possible because people can only detect a disease when the symptoms are visible, and in some cases waiting for symptoms to appear could be too late for the best management, Ehsani said.

“This project seeks to employ technologies that can significantly improve the efficiency and accuracy of detecting plant stress in the field at early stages of diseases,” he added. “The project proposes to use UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and ground robots to monitor different crops. Small UAVs and robots can be the farmers’ eye in the sky and on the ground to monitor everything that is going on in the field.”

Continuously monitoring crops for any sign of biotic and abiotic stress can potentially help growers to better manage nutrition deficiencies and diseases, which could lead to better yield and profits. It can also potentially reduce excessive use of chemical inputs and their impact on the environment.

UF’s team, which is based at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, will focus on the crop-stress sensing and monitoring systems.

“The work is just getting started and preliminary testing will not take place before next fall. Full-scale testing will occur in year four of the grant at a commercial site yet to be selected,” Xu said.

If successful, the technology developed and the protocol for using it would likely be applicable to other agricultural products, the researchers said.

The United States Department of Agriculture is the funding agency.