Last October, the CIAT Phenomics Platform Team from the Agrobiodiversity Area conducted the “Drones for Agriculture” course, with the purpose of training staff from different programs at the Center, who were interested in getting acquainted with the remote detection techniques that may be applied to agriculture through drones.

A drone, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), can do almost anything: take pictures from impossible angles, carry sensors that may read a plantation’s qualities, and analyze the performance of crops.

Currently, the CIAT Phenomics Platform Team is taking advantage of this new technology to train researchers in remote sensing to capture information, identify improvements for genotypes of rice or other crops, and reduce the cost and time frames of the research processes involved in plant breeding.

“Applying this technique entails a new agronomic revolution in the way we have been working throughout the years to identity improvements for plant genotypes. Conventional methodologies require plant breeders to tour around every plot taking field samples to be analyzed in the labs. The use of these technologies promises to be a valuable tool that complements the plant selection process in a faster and more cost-effective way”, said Milton Valencia, Research Assistant to the project.


Using drones, scientists have flexibility to monitor their agronomic trials at different scales (plant, plot, or lot) with an excellent spatial resolution (in the order of centimeters per pixel), as well as spectral (using multispectral cameras) and temporal resolution (carrying out evaluations frequently along the crop cycle), which makes it easier to conduct a dynamic evaluation and physiological diagnosis of crops, as well as to make objective decisions in real time.

Cristhian Delgado

Visiting Scientist at CIAT

At CIAT, for instance, this technology is being used to identify rice genotypes using nitrogen and water more efficiently. To have a good growth and yield, rice requires more nitrogen than other staple crops. Inefficient use of nitrogen fertilizers is one of the major problems in rice cultivation, which affects production costs and crop productivity, as well as the environment. Identifying varieties that use less water and can resist drought is also critical, especially in view of the challenges posed by climate change.

The Center uses nitrogen omission plots and mobile rainout shelters equipped with automatic irrigation systems to control inputs. Drones are used to fly over rice trial plots and capture images of the color variations, one of the key indicators of the level of nitrogen in the plant and water loss.

“Our view of the platform is to remain at the forefront with a new technology that is able to reduce the time used by plant physiologists to evaluate crop performance in the field, which opens new avenues for innovative approaches towards the development of new varieties capable of thriving under environmental stress”, concluded Michael Selvaraj, Leader of the Phenomics Platform at CIAT.

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