Dr. David Schmale prepares plane to collect Fusarium samples. A Virginia Tech plant pathologist has developed autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to detect airborne pathogens above agricultural fields.
David Schmale, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has not only linked agriculture and engineering with his interdisciplinary research but has also given scientists an unprecedented glimpse into the life of microorganisms hundreds of meters above the surface of the earth.
“Until recently, researchers used autonomous UAVs for military applications, but now we can apply this cutting-edge technology to agriculture,” said Schmale, who is an affiliate faculty member in the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems (VaCAS), a Virginia Tech research center that facilitates collaboration related to autonomous systems in the College of Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Natural Resources.
Scientists have used aircraft to monitor the movement of airborne pathogens for years, but Schmale is the first plant pathologist to use an autonomous system for this process.
“Autonomous UAVs have distinct advantages over a sampling aircraft operated via remote control,” Schmale explained. “First, the autonomous UAVs maintain a very precise sampling path. We can establish a GPS waypoint in the center of an agricultural field, and the autonomous plane can circle around the waypoint at a set altitude, with about a meter variation up and down. Second, the autonomous technology enables us to have coordinated flight with multiple aircraft. In other words, we can have two aircraft sampling pathogens at the same time but at different altitudes.”
Schmale has used the small, self-controlled planes to collect samples of the fungal genus Fusarium tens to hundreds of m