The Future of Fertilizer Might Lie With Insanely Precise Drones

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All farmers, from organic urban rooftops to monocropped GMO cornfields, rely on nitrogen fertilizer. But it isn't easy to apply exactly the right amount.

Nitrogen is an essential plant food, but excess nitrogen fertilizer can have serious environmental effects; it can encourage the growth of non-native or invasive species, can contaminate ground water sources, and can alter the makeup of soil to the point where it’s inhospitable for crops.

To help address this, a research team from Aarhus University in Denmark has come up with a way to pinpoint the precise nitrogen needs of individual plants. Their system relies on examining the light reflecting off a plant’s leaves—they used potato plants in the testing phase—in combination with the leaf’s surface area. Those two variables can tell us with a high degree of precision how much nitrogen that plant needs at that given moment.

While it sounds like the current setup is a bit labor-intensive, the team has received funding for some really exciting future work. They’ll be trying to even further narrow the amount of nitrogen each plant needs, but they’ll also be coming up with ways to use automated systems to do that measuring, namely by drone, satellite, and sensors.

In the not-too-distant future, you might be able to send out a drone into the field to perform quick, to-the-second surveys of exactly how much fertilizer your plants need. And using less nitrogen is vital for everyone: it reduces costs and increases efficiency for farmers, and helps create a cleaner environment for the rest of us.

The Future of Fertilizer Might Lie With Insanely Precise Drones