For reasons of food security and economic incentive, farmers continuously seek to maximize their marketable crop yields. As plants grow inconsistently, at the time of harvesting, there will inevitably be variations in quality and size of individual crops. Finding the optimal time to harvest is therefore a priority for farmers.

A new approach making heavy use of drones and artificial intelligence demonstrably improves this estimation by carefully and accurately analyzing individual crops to assess their likely growth characteristics.

Some optimistic science fiction stories talk about a post-scarcity future, where are catered for and hard labor is provided by machines. There are some ways in which this vision appears to predict some elements of current technological progress. One such area is in , where automation has been making an impact.

For the first time, researchers, including those from the University of Tokyo, have demonstrated a largely automated system to improve crop yields, which can benefit many and may help pave the way for future systems that could one day harvest crops directly. The findings are published in the journal Plant Phenomics.

“The idea is relatively simple, but the design, implementation and execution is extraordinarily complex,” said Associate Professor Wei Guo from the Laboratory of Field Phenomics.

“If farmers know the ideal time to harvest , they can reduce waste, which is good for them, for consumers and the environment. But optimum harvest times are not an easy thing to predict and ideally require detailed knowledge of each plant; such data would be cost and time prohibitive if people were employed to collect it. This is where the drones come in.”

Guo has a background in both and agricultural science, so is ideally suited to finding ways cutting-edge hardware and software could aid agriculture. He and his team have demonstrated that some low-cost drones with specialized software can image and analyze young plants—broccoli in the case of this study—and accurately predict their expected growth characteristics. The drones carry out the imaging process multiple times and do so without , meaning the system requires little in terms of labor costs.

“It might surprise some to know that by harvesting a field as little as a day before or after the optimal time could reduce the potential income of that field for the by 3.7% to as much as 20.4%,” said Guo. “But with our system, drones identify and catalog every plant in the field, and their feeds a model that uses to produce easy-to-understand visual data for farmers.

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