Despite vast advancements in the growth of plants, over a billion people on our planet still suffer from hunger. And according to the International Food Policy and Research Institute, food production needs to double by 2050 if we’re going to meet the demands of our exponentially-growing population. It’ll take a concerted effort on many fronts to make that happen, but help may be coming from an unexpected sector: the consumer drone industry.

using drones to accelerate plant genetic research

A Novice’s Guide To Drones

When we think of drones, we usually think of the unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military, and all the negative connotations involved with that. But a drone is just any aircraft that doesn’t have an onboard pilot. Professional drones are often used by aerial photographers as a cheaper alternative to the traditional “helicopter shot” and have been used in films like Captain America: Civil War and Jurassic World. But drones are also popular with consumers – they can be used for taking selfies, for recreational use, or to participate in a growing racing scene. Click here to learn more.

So while they may have scary connotations, drones have proven useful in all kinds of scientific research, from biology to geology. And now, they might be helping accelerate genetic research involving plants, which in turn could help solve food shortages across the globe.

How Can Drones Help?

Accelerated food production is not a problem that can be solved with more farms. Researchers largely agree: we need to make better use of the farmland we already have. Crops need to be genetically improved to resist pests and harsh weather conditions (especially in the wake of man-made climate change) and, obviously, to yield more food per harvest.

We’ve made great strides in these fields over the past several years, but there’s still – pardon the pun – room to grow. It can take decades to sequence genomes and find the traits that are best for the elements of plants we want to encourage. But researchers from the University of Georgia think they might have the solution – a terrifying army of drones. Seriously – using an automatic, robotic system of aerial vehicles flying over fields where plants were being grown, Doctor Changying Li was able to collect over 20 terabytes of data over a six-month growing season. This data was taken from multispectral, hyperspectral and thermal cameras mounted to the drones as well as Li-DAR (Light Detection And Ranging) sensors that form precise three-dimensional maps of the plants both aboveground and underground.

This process greatly reduces the man hours required to study new crops and can help us more quickly get an understanding of the genome of our most important food sources, which in turn can help us genetically modify those plants to deal with the coming food shortages. And as we start developing algorithms to deal with all that data, we may be able to find more substantial and general conclusions than human scientists could determine in many years. And because drones are affordable and easily moddable, they are a lot better at these sorts of deep scanning tasks than other forms of transportation.

It may be too early to say if drones are the next big revolution in the food production industry. But they may be at least a step towards finding the answers we need to save our species.