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UF/IFAS Researchers Turn to the Sky for In-Field Water Conservation

When it comes to understanding soil moisture levels, Florida farmers and growers may turn to the sky.

Thanks to a grant from the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services aimed at using sUAS systems to assist with irrigation management, UF researchers are moving closer to understanding moisture and composition in the soil profile.

Jim Fletcher, a UF/IFAS Regional Specialized Agent focusing on water resources, has been working with small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) 2017 developing educational programs and best practices for Florida growers who want to utilize sUAS technology when monitoring growing conditions.

“Traditionally, irrigation sensors are placed every 60 to 80 acres in the field. This placement provides good information but does not take into account the in-field variability,” Fletcher said. “By placing sensors on a smaller scale, we can be more efficient and get more precise information on plant and soil needs.”


UF/IFAS researchers install soil moisture sensors in Osceola, Brevard and St. John’s counties as part of a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services grant that uses sUAS technology to determine irrigation management techniques

The sUAS-mounted cameras originally used visual and multispectral cameras to monitor crop performance. With the advent of cost effective thermal sensors, growers will be introduced to an entirely new set of information about their soil, ranging from moisture levels to plant stresses and soil composition.


“Soil moisture sensors give us minute-by-minute updates on the plants and their needs. Growers can watch the data and see patterns, for example, what time do those plants show more water-absorbing activity? What time are they thirsty in the afternoon?” Fletcher said.

The sensors monitor soil moisture conditions at depths of 5, 15 and 30 centimeters and monitor EC content. Fletcher hopes to combine the new data available from the sensors with thermal imaging to create algorithms to help growers understand if plant deficits are water, fertilization or even insect related.

“We have access to so much information via the sUAS,” Fletcher said. “We are trying to see if we can program the drone to help growers get more crop per drop.”

Fletcher, who has been working with sod growers, specialty crop farmers and utility companies, hopes to develop predictive algorithms and establish best management practices for sUAS monitoring of soil moisture levels.

“Using sUAS-mounted technology has the potential to change the way we look at water conservation on farms, saving growers more money and using less resources,” Fletcher said.

The sensors, which are located underground, send information back to the sUAS.


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