Penn State team gets $100,000 grant for satellite crop surveillance

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A Tanzanian cassava farmer, left, learns to use a plant disease mobile app developed as part of the PlantVillage initiative led by Penn State researchers. The work recently garnered at $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Penn State photo)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A research team in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant — an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A group led by David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology, will pursue the project, Pest and Disease Surveillance via High-Resolution Satellites.

If deemed successful, the project has the opportunity to receive a second grant of up to $1 million.

Diagnosing crop disease

Hughes explained that satellites could be an important tool for pest and disease surveillance of multiple crops over large geographic regions in low-income countries. High-resolution satellites from commercial services image the globe daily, and publicly funded fleets of satellites maintained by governmental agencies have a suite of tools to measure crop health, soil moisture and water availability.

Such coverage already is critical for documenting crop stress due to droughts. But to date, he noted, high-resolution satellite imagery has not played a role in diagnosing crop diseases and pest infestations.

In smallholder settings, the significant challenge appears to stem from the mode of farming practiced — it is often polyculture on irregularly shaped farms that have abundant trees, large shrubs and weeds growing within the crops.

“Satellites in agriculture typically measure vegetation indices,” Hughes said. “These give a measure of health and growth. If farms contain multiple crops, are irregularly shaped and have many other types of vegetation, then it’s challenging to discriminate between crop and noncrop plants. Even when the data tell us that a crop is stressed, it’s also difficult to determine whether the stress is due to insect pests, disease, poor nutrients or drought. From space, a sick plant is a sick plant.”

Work in Kenya

To test the ability of satellite imagery to help diagnose insect and disease problems, Hughes’ team will leverage existing projects underway in Kenya, where researchers are using artificial intelligence on smartphone apps and observations from drones, scientists and cooperating farmers to identify plant pests and diseases.

Researchers will utilize the group’s access to high-resolution satellite data through a collaboration with Planet.com, a commercial satellite imaging service, and compare it to “ground-truth” data collected by experts, drones and smartphones.

“Our work is innovative because incorporating multiple data types across multiple scales has never been done with smallholder farmers as the focus,” Hughes said. “We are in the unique position of using ground-truth data from disease experts, drones and machine-learning models across 28,000 Kenyan farms to see the true extent of plant diseases and test the usefulness of satellites.

Ohio State grant

Hughes’ project is one of 34 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 21 grants announced Nov. 1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

From Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, plant pathologist Pierluigi Bonello received a $100,000 grant to develop a surveillance system for crops using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to position sensors to help diagnose plant diseases in low-income countries.

To receive funding, Grand Challenges Explorations winners demonstrated in a two-page, online application a bold idea in one of three critical global heath and development topic areas.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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