WITH a notepad and pencil in hand, agricultural researchers are regularly found assessing field trials on foot.
It is a time-consuming process - often bound by limits of human error - in an industry where precision matters.
Having been involved with Department of Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) research trials since 2015, Perth-based agtech company Stratus Imaging is all too aware of how labour intensive collecting data is.
And so two years ago, Stratus Imaging directors Andrew Dedman and Jon Smith looked for a way to make the job easier.
They joined forces with Belgium research institution VITO nv (more specific VITO Remote Sensing) by engaging their online platform MapEO to automate the process using aerial drone technology - Stratus Imaging.
It is a partnership they label as a gamechanger for agricultural researchers, agricultural field managers and plant breeders.
In a 20-minute drone flight most field trials are covered and highly accurate, data rich images of each plot are captured.
Every single plant's height and volume can be measured with the drone.
The images can count exactly how many plants are in a plot, while identifying and measuring problems, which can't be seen to the naked eye.
Information is uploaded to an end-to-end online platform and results are processed within 24 hours.
Usually three to four programs would be required to produce the same outcome.
"In the past researchers would have manually counted a trial," Mr Dedman said.
"But they wouldn't have gone to every single plot because they wouldn't have had enough time.
"That's where this technology can take out the guesswork and save huge amounts of time.
"While the drone can do the tedious counting and measurement of plants, researchers can focus on advancing their research."
MapEO streamlines the process of creating research plot boundaries with a simple user interface, quickly rendering statistics visually and exporting results all with a few clicks.
As well as plant counts and sizing, Stratus Phenotyping can provide several trait measurements at critical times during the growing season.
These include generic traits - lodging, leaf cover, vegetation indices, flowering intensity and growth curves.
And also, crop specific traits - emergence, early vigour, stand count, leaf angle, organ/fruit count, flower count and disease detection.
After a year of trial work in New South Wales and WA, Stratus Imaging is ready to expand MapEO and Stratus Imaging to the full market.
In NSW, the trial was completed at a site in Condobolin in the Central West and specifically focused on counting emergence in canola.
This produced positive results and the technology is set to be used by researcher in more than six locations.
Meanwhile, in WA trials focused on wheat head counting were held at Goomalling in partnership with a seed breeding company.
"Both of the trials went really well," Mr Dedman said.
"We have been pushing the boundaries of technology and it has paid off.
"Instead of heading out to the field, researchers can sit behind their computer, after drone images have been processed and can see all the plants being counted.
"It does a really good job of finding even the smallest plant."
Mr Dedman said while many researchers would put accurate assessments down to experience, there were new researchers coming onto the scene this technology could help.
He said it also takes the subjective decision making from each researcher to the next, which would prove useful in grower groups.
"There may be a collaboration with groups in the north, east and south of WA," Mr Dedman said.
"If they all use the same program, they can measure and compare across the different regions in the same way.
"It means they're now basically measuring apples with apples."
Since it was founded in 2015, Stratus Imaging has collaborated in trials with the likes of Grains Research and Development Corporation, CSIRO and DPIRD, as well as several grower groups and private companies.
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