UMN drone tech may prevent nitrogen contamination

The University recently licensed a technology to help farmers with nitrogen application.

Katrina Pross

A new technology from the University of Minnesota could help both farmers and the environment by making fertilizer application more efficient.

The University recently agreed to license their drone technology to the Minneapolis company Sentera. Farmers commonly over-apply nitrogen fertilizers, which are harmful to the environment in excessive amounts. Experts hope this technology will make nitrogen application more precise and decrease its environmental impact.

The technology uses drones to fly over fields and capture images of the crops. Crops that are deficient in nitrogen are more yellow in color, and by analyzing color patterns, the farmers can determine how much nitrogen needs to be applied to the crop, said Sentera CEO Eric Taipale. This technology will make the process of analyzing color patterns much faster, as farmers have to walk through the entire field otherwise, which can be very time-consuming, he said.

University researchers began creating this technology three years ago and finished the project late last year, said researcher David Mulla. Sentera is now conducting field testing and working with farmers. Field testing the technology will continue this summer, and it’s expected to be available in 2019.

“At the University, it’s our job to develop new tools and technology, and Sentera can develop business models and get the technology in the hands of companies to work with farmers,” Mulla said.

Nitrogen fertilization requires a balance to ensure it’s not over-applied, which is harmful to the environment, or under-applied, which means crops won’t produce as much.

Excess nitrogen is absorbed into soil and pollutes water that can run off into rivers, lakes and oceans. This makes water undrinkable and leads to large areas of water called “dead zones” in areas like the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is no life because there is no oxygen, said Dimitris Zermas, a University Ph.D. student whose thesis is on this technology.

However, not adding enough nitrogen to crops can also be an issue.

“Nitrogen deficiency is also a huge problem. If you don’t apply enough nitrogen, you will lose a lot of yield,” Zermas said.

Nitrogen is a necessary compound that helps the plant create proteins and is essential for metabolic processes, Mulla said.

“If we have more plants surviving, then we can feed a larger population,” said professor Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos.

The technology will also save farmers money, Taipale said. Because the farmers will know how much fertilizer to use, they won’t overspray their fields and buy more fertilizer than necessary, Papanikolopoulos said. Plus, the overall yield of their crops will improve, he said.

The top layer of soil eroded from nitrogen contamination is the most productive soil, he said. Nitrogen contamination is also very expensive to remove. Researchers expect that this technology will lead to more economic gain for farmers by preventing these issues.

“This technology will also affect human well-being and improve the safety and quality of life for people, with minimal environmental impact,” Papanikolopoulos said.