Federally Supported Project Using Drones to Boost Wheat Yields

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded $3.4 million in funding for research into the development of new wheat varieties that are adapted to different geographical regions and environmental conditions. Specifically, one of the seven projects – entitled “Wheat Yield Prediction and Advanced Selection Methodologies Through Field-Based High-Throughput Phenotyping with UAVs” implements drones.

The seven projects are funded through NIFA’s new International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) program, part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

Scientists from Kansas State University will use unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, outfitted with imaging tools, to rapidly assess field trials in wheat breeding programs and use the aerial images to gather precise measurements of plant traits relating to yield and health.

“Wheat delivers a significant amount of daily nutrients for American families and people around the world,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA’s director. “As demand for wheat grows with the population, wheat research plays a vital role in meeting that need. These grants help support agricultural researchers developing new wheat varieties with greater yield and help us improve global collaboration on wheat research.”

The overall goal of the Kansas State project, which was awarded $300,00 in funding, is to “accelerate genetic gain in wheat breeding programs through the implementation of field-based high-throughput phenotyping (HTP) combined with genomic prediction modeling,” NIFA’s description says.

“Within this goal, the specific objectives for the project focus on a step change in field-based high-throughput phenotyping approaches with unmanned aerial vehicles.”

In addition, Kansas State will “evaluate thousands of field plots of candidate varieties in the Kansas State University and International Wheat Research Center (CIMMYT) breeding programs and use the ‘big data’ generated to develop yield prediction models to assist breeders with identifying and selecting the best candidate varieties.”

The university will also implement deep learning to “automatically measure important traits from UAV-captured images in ways that are consistent with what an expert breeder would do in the field.”

“This approach will provide an ‘eye-in-the-skies’ to give breeders additional information for quickly identifying the best new varieties out of thousands of field plots. These approaches using UAVs for rapid measurement of large field trials in wheat breeding developed through this project will be implemented in powerful and breeder-friendly software. These tools will enable breeders to more effectively and quickly identify superior new varieties and deliver them to farmers.”

The description adds that the “rapid development and delivery of high-yielding varieties is a critical part of maintaining stable food supplies and obtaining global food security.”

This is the second year of investments in IWYP to enhance agricultural research that supports the G20 Nations’ Wheat Initiative, benefiting U.S. farmers and consumers, as well as the global community. The international partnership includes USDA’s NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service; the U.S. Agency for International Development; the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the U.K.; the Grains Research and Development Corp. of Australia; the Department of Biotechnology of India; Mexico’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; France’ Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique; and Switzerland’s Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, AFRI is a peer-reviewed competitive grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences. AFRI’s six priority areas include plant health, production and products; animal health, production and products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

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