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Central Florida UF Researchers Use Drones to Assess Hurricane Michael Damage in Panhandle

APOPKA, Fla. – Researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recently traveled to Panhandle counties to include Gadsden, Jackson and Calhoun with their drones to assess damage after Hurricane Michael devastated the region.

“This is the first time UF/IFAS scientists have used drones to determine agricultural crop damage and yield reduction,” said Jim Fletcher, a regional specialized agent based at the UF/IFAS Mid Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka. “We are excited to use this technology to get a more accurate account of damage after a storm.”

Alan Hodges, director of the UF program in Economic Impact Analysis, will use data from the drones in his report on economic damage from Hurricane Michael. “In the past, I would use data collected from ground views and satellite overpasses. But the drones allow us to give an even more accurate picture of the actual damage to crops,” Hodges said.

According to Fletcher, satellite images are not enough because the satellite makes passes over the area every 16 days. Also, the resolution of the satellite imagery is lower, he said. “When we fly the drones, we can get a lot better resolution to look at the damage,” Fletcher said. “And, the satellite cannot look through the cloud cover.”

Fletcher and his team flew two drones during the recent assessment—a large Matrice 100 outfitted with two sensors (RGB and Multispectral) and a medium-size Phantom 4 outfitted with an RGB sensor. Fields ranging from 50 to 250 acres were flown at varying heights ranging from 50 to 400 feet , Fletcher said.

“We estimate a 100 percent plant loss in tomatoes, peppers and cotton,” Fletcher said. “In peanuts, we found 30 to 40 percent loss of leaves. The leaf is the breathing apparatus of the plant, so losing leaves is like a human losing a lung and trying to run five miles. There will be impacts; in the case of peanuts impacts will be in yield reduction”

The team plans to return Quincy in three weeks to get a more accurate picture of damage, Fletcher said. “The plants haven’t had time to die five to seven days after a storm. They can look healthy, but are wounded,” he said. “Three weeks out will give us a more accurate account of how many plants are dying or are dead. From that, we can more accurately assess the true damage of the storm.”

Fletcher wants to use this exercise to create a rapid assessment tool for future storms. “It’s important to get a true economic picture of storm damage because this will determine the economic impact to Florida agriculture as well assisting producers in receiving aid from both federal and state agencies.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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