Eye in the sky saves crops - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Eye in the sky saves crops

July 12, 2004

Camilla - It's a strange sight - a blimp flying over a South Georgia farm. This blimp may help farmers grow healthier crops and conserve water. Glen Ritchie fills his floating science experiment with helium before sending it high in the air. The University of Georgia Ph.D. student is using the blimp to determine precisely when crops need watering.

"You can lose up to 300 or 400 pounds of cotton by just having the crop water-stressed over the growing season," said Ritchie. South Georgia farmers know all too well how drought conditions can ruin a crop. Ritchie is performing research in the cotton fields at C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla. "This research is cutting edge in this field."

Using specialized irrigation pivots, Ritchie gave the crops various amounts of water to simulate dry and rainy conditions. Then up goes the blimp to take aerial photographs of the fields. A box hanging from the bottom of the blimp carries two digital cameras; one takes infrared pictures and the other normal pictures. When the photographs are overlayed, you can see what crops are water stressed.

"Based on the amount of green and red reflectants, we're able to pick out when the plants are starting to go into water stress," said Ritchie. The information can tell farmers when to irrigate. "Instead of guessing at whether it will be 5 or 7 days before we need to water again, this will allow us to know exactly when we need to go back in and water."

The blimp research can also show farmers when they're over irrigating crops which can save them water and money. This eye high in the sky may soon lead to high yields for South Georgia farmers.

The unique irrigation research tool only costs about $1,500, that includes the cost of the digital camera. So the blimp may one day be an affordable tool for all farmers.

Posted at 5:44PM by kathryn.murchison@walb.com