This summer I worked on a research project with scientists from SASA and SRUC investigating the potential use of drones to survey seed potato crops for pests and disease, via weekly monitoring and as a direct inspection tool using flight goggles. Seed potato crops must meet strict plant health tolerances to be eligible for marketing and are inspected at least twice by Plant Health officials during the growing season for pathological and physiological disorders. The inspection process is time consuming and requires two inspectors to walk each of the approximately 4,500 crops planted each year. The aim of the project was to determine whether drone technology could assist inspectors through speeding up the inspection process or identifying potential plant health issues earlier in the growing season.
My first task as part of the project was to complete, and pass, the two-week intensive training course that all new growing crop inspectors must pass to be eligible for employment. There are approximately 1,300 varieties in the training plots at SASA but luckily we only had to recognise the top 30 most common varieties, as well as a large range of diseases and varietal genetic variations. This training was very helpful towards my project and I am now able to identify virus and bacterial diseases in the field. During the project, I was responsible for collecting field-based data, particularly ground cover and crop height. The drones used for weekly monitoring can identify changes in ground cover and height, which may help identify diseases such as blackleg, as delayed emergence or reduced growth could be identified over time. The project has generated a huge amount of data which is still being analysed but the training has helped me to identify advantages, and some limitations, when using drones.
The use of drones as direct inspection tools could benefit inspectors by saving time spent on manual inspections through removing the need to walk through a crop. However, during trials with the equipment, some inspectors struggled to identify symptoms of virus in the plots due to limitations of the goggles (depth of colour, focussing, sunlight reflections and lack of viewing in 3D). Some also complained of motion sickness when wearing the goggles. In advanced stages of growth, and with a dense canopy, identification of potato leaf roll virus was not possible as symptoms occur in the lower leaves. An inspector can inspect from the ground upwards, but the drone’s birds eye view may miss disease if symptoms are below the canopy.
Throughout the duration of the project, I have gained valuable knowledge and developed a better understanding of the important work that SASA does to help maintain the high health of Scottish seed potatoes. I have had a varied ten weeks, including spending time in the zoology and pathology labs, testing samples for virus, sampling rivers for bacterial pathogens and identifying aphids.
I really enjoyed my time working with SRUC and SASA and I’d like to thank BSPP for the funding.
Scotland’s Rural College, Edinburgh
Growing crop inspectors at SASA’s training plots