AXTON — Last August, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research unveiled a new grant-funded drone called the “AgBot,” designed to put an eye in the sky over fields to help local farmers get more data on their farms.

The AgBot is a quadcopter drone with a full-spectrum camera powerful enough to tell if there’s disease on a single leaf on a plant and a thermal camera powerful enough to tell if someone in a room full of people is running a fever, said Dr. Scott Lowman, a senior scientist at the Institute.

Since its debut, the AgBot has flown over hundreds of acres, snapping pictures and collecting information on the plants in the fields belonging to dozens of different farmers.

Those fields contain such crops as tobacco, wine grapes, soybeans and hops. And the drone’s pictures will help farmers determine what they need to do next season.

Herb Atwell, the farmer and brewer behind Mountain Valley Hops and Brewing — Henry County’s “oldest and only” brewery — is among the farmers working with the AgBot this year.

He started growing different breeds of hops after he and his wife moved to Henry County four years ago for his wife’s job. She loved craft beer, so he decided to try home brewing, and liked how it turned out. Atwell was very proud of his hops, pulling several cones off of the vine for Register & Bee staff to feel the differences in oils, and the different smells.

“We decided to try going from ground to glass, which sparked the idea of seeing what being a brewery entailed,” Atwell said. “It’s grown on itself since then.”

They expanded and opened Mountain Valley Brewing about six months ago, around the same time. A few months later, Atwell met with the Institute’s director of research, Mark Gignac, and the farmer’s third of an acre of hops became a part of the AgBot’s fields.

“This being our first year, this is more about data acquisition,” explained Institute researcher Samantha Smith-Herndon. “The second year, we’ll be able to make more targeted decisions and develop an action plan for growers.”

The AgBot collects data by measuring the reflectance of light off of the leaves of the plant. The amount of light reflected is usually an indicator of how much chlorophyll there is in the canopy leaves of the plant.

“It filters out the spectrums of light that pertain to plant biology, which are blue, green, red, red edge and infrared,” Smith-Herndon explained. “On a healthy leaf, you can see the reflectance of red is very high, as well as red edge and green.”

The software the cloud uses can add a variety of filters to look at different parameters and target exactly what a grower is looking for. The researchers will then work with growers based on what they learned this season to create action plans specific to each field.

“For example, we know that next year when we are flying [a soybean farmer’s farm] with the AgBot, we need to focus on a particular spike in disease pressure called frog eye spot,” Smith-Herndon explained. “When that appears on his soybeans, it’s too late to treat, so it can be a preventative measure. We know we can bring the AgBot out during a certain window and tell him when he needs to hopefully be applying that really expensive fungicide.”

Smith-Herndon said that growers’ experience is the most valuable data they have — the AgBot is just a tool.

Atwell said he’s found this season to be very informative, and can’t wait to see what the compilation of data will tell him about his crops to help him flesh out plans for next year.

“This year, I’m going to cut them at about 8 inches up, and we’re going to come back and mound the dirt up, so that next year they have a more solid base,” Atwell explained, leaning over to the base of a plant and gesturing at where he plans to mound the dirt, and cut back the hops vine at the end of the season. “It helps with the irrigation, and gives us better weed control.”

The Institute’s researchers also plan to work with local high schools and colleges to show future farmers what more there is to farming than just back-breaking manual labor.

“We’re hoping that the [Future Farmers of America] will understand that farming depends on them,” Smith-Herndon said. “The next generation of farmers needs to be informed, they need to be precise.”

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Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at csimkiss@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7981.

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