Researchers at Iowa State University are using advanced space technology to identify and solve down-to-earth problems like crop diseases. John Basart, ISU professor emeritus of electrical engineering, says his team is learning to survey fields for the very damaging Asian soybean rust by scrutinizing pictures taken by orbiting satellites.
Basart says: "We can tell them the location of where we would like to have an image taken of a field and then the people that control the satellite program in these coordinates and when the satellite next goes over that location on the earth, the satellite will take the image that we request and then ship it to us by way of the Internet." He says all of the work being done now is at the experimental stage as there’s no surveying in Iowa yet.
Soybean rust has not been confirmed in Iowa. It’s hit several states in the southern U.S. and has been found as far north as Illinois and Indiana. Basart says, "Once the soybean rust reaches Iowa, then it will be quite important that we start surveying many regions of the state. Right now, we’re taking images over South Africa where the rust has already occurred. It’s made its way into the southeastern part of the U.S. but hasn’t made its way into Iowa yet." He says they’re learning to manipulate and read the images, which detail about a square yard of cropland.
Basart says: "We’ve done a lot of that type of research, zooming in on the fields that have the soybean rust and comparing the images of fields with the rust to fields without the rust so we can determine what characteristics of an image we can use in remote sensing to detect if the rust is there." Basart says the "footprints" of early soybean rust infection are oval-shaped and the way it spreads over time in a field helps distinguish it from other diseases. He says the satellites aren’t always readily available to shoot pictures, so ISU is also working on the use of aircraft and balloons to survey crops.