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Remote-control helicopter could help orchard growers

University of New Hampshire researchers are using a remote-controlled helicopter to help apple orchards pinpoint problems and protect their crops against blemishes that render the apples unmarketable.

The low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle is loaded with GPS and infrared technology that can see pests or early infections caused by the apple scab fungus, which causes dark blemishes on the leaves and skin of apples. Instead of a farmer spending a full day scouting an orchard for problems, the helicopter can do daily surveillance in a short amount of time.

Kirk Broders, a UNH plant pathologist, and doctoral student Matt Wallhead are working with a Massachusetts robotics company to build the vehicles, which they expect to cost about $2,500.

“We aim to create an (unmanned aerial vehicle) that an independent researcher or grower could afford,” Broders said.

The researchers expect that in addition to smaller orchards, their vehicle could be used to monitor large row crops such as corn, soybeans, rice and wheat to detect disease outbreaks and assess overall crop health. They are fine-tuning their prototype and practicing by flying it over UNH-owned farms. The final product is about five years away from the marketplace, they estimate.

While Broders and Wallhead are one of the first research groups to use such technology for apples, similar vehicles increasingly are being used for nonmilitary purposes, such as monitoring vineyards or tracking endangered animals.

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