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Drones have a new job title: plant breeder

The Drone can add a new line to its resume: plant breeder. Drones have proven themselves to have a swath of talents, from aiding in firefighting efforts to helping animals to performing onstage in Cirque du Soleil.

But drones are disrupting another industry: plant breeding.

Plant breeding in some form has been in practice since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, enabling farmers to alter the genetic composition of plants by selecting certain plans to breed (or crossing varieties) in hopes that those plants best, most useful traits would be passed down to future generations.

Plant breeding tactics have improved with science. In the early 20th century, scientists discovered genes, allowing a plant breeder to create hybrid plants. Other technologies such as X-rays, have also aided in plant breeding.

And now, drones are joining the plant breeder efforts.

French drone technology company Delair this week is showing off a partnership with Phenome Networks, a plant breeding software company to create a new workflow that allows farmers using aerial data gathered by drones to upload their data to the PhenomeOne software. The goal is to allow farmers to accelerate plant breeding and variety testing, ideally allowing faster developement of the most optimal varieties of plants.

While the practice of genetically modifying plants is controversial in some communities, others argue it is essential. Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have said that genetically modified crops pose unpredictable dangers, and they have been referred to by some as “Frankenfoods.” Some snack makers prominently label their packaging with the words “No G.M.O.s.”

But most scientists have argued that modifying crops to increase output is imperative to ending world starvation. 90 percent of scientists believe G.M.O.s are safe, according to the New York Times, which added that the practice of modifying crops is also endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization 

Phenome does too, saying its customers need to breed plants to better adapt to agriculture challenges, such as diseases or water stress.

How plant breeding works

Modern-day plant breeding requires an enormous amount of data, based on hundreds of field trials. From there, the analysis must consider genetic connections in different generations among large seed populations, with traits measured over a large range of locations and time.

And seed breeders say that collecting field-based plant phenotypic data with sufficient resolution and accuracy in a reproducible and non-invasive manner at such a large-scale is one of their biggest challenges.

But the agricultural focus of Delair’s mapping applications in its Delair UX11 AG drone could be the ticket to solving that big challenge.

Inbar Stern, VP Sales and Business Development at Phenome Networks, said the partnership will allow farmers to use PhenomeOne software to manage and analyze data collected by the Delair drone solutions, allowing them to reduce labor and provide better insights.

One farmers have gathered the aerial data, the data can be extracted at plot level and microplot level by delair.ai algorithms and agriculture-optimized analytics. The data is cloud-based, which allows users to store and access the data anywhere, as long as they are online.

Delair already has major agricultural clients including Mas Seeds, a leading European seed producer active in 40 countries. One of their biggest projects has been using drones to improve sunflower seeds (which supply 50% of Europe’s food oil market) to decrease the breeding burden while enhancing the phenotyping capacities. That aerial data is able to produce insights on the biomass, the Leaf Area Index (LAI) and the chlorophyll concentration.

Drones elsewhere in agriculture

Drones have proven useful in a variety of agricultural applications. More than 30% of farmers already use drones themselves or through a third-party provider, according to a poll of more than 1,000 farmers. They’re being used to more precisely spray fertilizers and pesticides, allowing farmers to better target plants that actually need to be sprayed, allowing them to save money on fertilizer, and better protecting the environment by only putting those chemicals in places where they are necessary.

NDVI data can help farmers better understand their plant’s health.

Companies like DroneSeed have developed ways to remove the painstaking work of actually planting seeds, by creating a drone that blasts fertilizer and seeds into the ground at 350 feet per second. The company predicts its device can plant 800 seeds per hour. 

And there’s one more advantage agricultural drones have over drones working in other industries: they tend not to fly over people, and they’re typically not flying in restricted airspace. Thus, agricultural drones don’t have fewer legal and policy headaches, too.

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