Several faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are among a national group of university researchers awarded the 2022 Excellence in Multistate Research Award for an ongoing project that has helped accelerate the use of drones in agricultural systems.

The award-winning project, “Research and Extension for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in U.S. Agriculture and Natural Resources,” evaluates and identifies the most reliable, cost-effective, and user-friendly drone platforms and sensors for monitoring and managing stressors in agriculture and natural resources. To maximize the accuracy of the data collected, project members developed hardware, software, and detailed protocols for calibrating and using drones.

Maria Balota, a professor in the School and Plant and Environmental Sciences and Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center; Daniel Fuka, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; Cully Hession, a professor and graduate program director in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; and Joseph Oakes, the superintendent of the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center, represented the university on the team of scientists.

They have been part of this project, which was recently renewed, since 2016.

“The contributions of this group to the multistate effort were on large-scale water quality monitoring and high-throughput phenotyping of various crops and varieties by drone imaging,” said Balota, project chair. “Our multistate, multidisciplinary research and outreach have helped overcome barriers and accelerate broader use of drones. By efficiently collecting large amounts of data, drones can help guide better decision making, greater advances in plant and animal breeding, and more profitable and sustainable management.”

Virginia Tech is the leading institution for the first year of the renewed project, which runs from September 2022 to October 2023.

When the project was conceived in 2016, Balota said, university researchers had multiple challenges to acquire and utilize an unmanned aircraft system. Before major changes in Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, research programs needed licensed pilots, medically certified visual observers, and government authorization permitting flight in only specified areas. Regulations also were strict regarding use of unmanned aircraft systems for non-research applications including education, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and private use. Against this backdrop, the project was created to leverage strengths that could advance this field.

Since then, project members have shared their knowledge in many ways, including through fact sheets, Extension workshops, programs and materials, peer-reviewed publications, and at regional, national, and international conferences.

As awardees, team members received funding to cover costs for two participants to attend the awards ceremony and to support activities that enhance and contribute to the research or outreach objectives of the project.

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