International research examines the use of UAS to detect pest insects and diseases in food crops

Rich Brown, unmanned aircraft technician at Kansas State University Salina, prepares an unmanned aircraft for flight. Image credit:

The Queensland University of Technology, the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, and the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry have teamed up with Kansas State University to collaborate on an international project that looks at using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as a quick and efficient method to detect pest insects and diseases in food crops before outbreaks happen.

Rich Brown, unmanned aircraft technician at Kansas State University Salina, prepares an unmanned aircraft for flight.
Image credit:

The $1.74 million three-year project titled “Optimising Surveillance Protocols Using Unmanned Aerial Systems” is funded by the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre — a consortium of several of Australia and New Zealand’s leading governmental research institutions and universities supported by industry and governmental partners, with Kansas State University the centre’s only US partner.

“In both Australia and the U.S., there is a lot of interest in the plant biosecurity field on how to increase the efficiency and detection rates of plant-based threats using emerging technologies. Unmanned aerial systems technologies are promising because they’re inexpensive and you can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time,” said Brian McCornack, associate professor of entomology and the US principal investigator on the project.

According to the press release by the Kansas State University, Mr McCornack and a team of researchers at the University’s Manhattan and Salina campuses are conducting a series of studies that look at how accurately UAS can detect invasive insects and emerging diseases in commercial wheat fields, as well as how to optimise information collected during flights.

The research will initially target the Russian wheat aphid and wheat stripe rust, also commonly referred to as “yellow rust.”

Kansas State University researchers are working with landowners and the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct approved UAS flights in wheat fields around Kansas, while researchers in Australia are conducting complementary flights to collect supporting data.

The gathered data from Aerial images captured by the UAS will be compared and used to identify field sections of the fields that have abnormalities caused by key insect pests or diseases.

Mr McCornack said the research would not only remove the current “needle-in-the-haystack approach to monitoring crop plants”, but would also look at how to refine the aerial images captured by the UAS in order to provide landowners with the most usable data.

“Currently, early detection of an invasive pest requires a great amount of luck and sweat. Typically, a landowner has to make an educated guess about where to go in a large field to check for infested plants. It works, but if a farmer or scout has several thousand acres to manage, it’s not very time effective,” McCornack said.

“It’s important that we’re able to detect the next invasive pest. Since 2001, the invasive soybean aphid has changed how we manage much of the 75 million acres of soybean in the North Central U.S. We believe that using UAS and working closely with farmers and scouts to regularly monitor crops and look for those changes early on can reduce the likelihood of repeating what happened with soybean aphid.”