Edible Innovations: Using Drones for DIY Agricultural Monitoring Systems

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Edible Innovations: Using Drones for DIY Agricultural Monitoring Systems

From Singapore to the USA and all around Europe, Edible Innovations profiles food makers that engage in improving the global food system at every stage, from production to distribution to eating and shopping. Join us as we explore the main trends in the industry from a maker perspective. Chiara Cecchini of Future Food Institute — an ecosystem with a strong educational core that promotes food innovation as a key tool to tackle the great challenges of the future — introduces you to the faces, stories, and experiences of food makers around the globe. Check back on Tuesdays and Thursdays for new installments.

Today we are face to face with a Maker from Nepal, a very beautiful country that mostly relies on agriculture for its economy. Agriculture is the backbone of the country, but farmers experience losses of up to 14% due to no effective means of monitoring for diseases in crops. That’s why Suman decided to try and figure out a way to create a cheap DIY agricultural monitoring system.

Our Maker: Suman Ghimire

Suman Ghimire is a young, energetic maker who has always been passionate in bringing a positive change to his community. He represents one of the millions of young people affected by the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015. Although he lost his shelter, he never lost hope. “I restarted at the DIY level,” he says, “It is the way to go when building something; restart and create an impact.”

Suman, how did you start?

I started by getting my hands on a camera, and trying to hack it to get a smarter monitoring system for agriculture. The first thing I did, was dive into the monitoring process. So, let me explain to you the physiology of plants. Every plant absorbs the blue and red spectrum from the sun in order to enable the photosynthesis process. While doing that, plants reflect the total amount of infrared spectrum incident on it. Therefore, using infrared we get the information of total incident radiant energy, while from either blue or red channel we get the radiant energy absorbed by the plants for photosynthesis. Using these incident and reflected lights together with an image processing pipeline, we can easily distinguish the photosynthetic activity of the plants. This gives us the measure of a plant health.

So, what did you do at that point?

Every consumer digital camera in the world can capture the near infrared spectrum of light. However, for the application in photography, camera sensors mimic human eye through an infrared blocking filter attached in front of the lens. This prevents contamination of infrared light. So I just took a normal consumer camera (that cost around $50 USD) and removed the infrared filter.

Great – and how did it go?

Well…the first prototype had contamination of near infrared spectrum in every channel of the camera. So nothing actually worked.

How did you deal with it?

Through intensive literature review, and support from a public lab’s community forum, I replaced the infrared filter with a dual band pass filter, resulting in band separation that blocked the blue and green spectrum and allowed the hacked camera to capture red channel and near infrared channel. I went on the field to test it with a drone and used the measurements from a spectroradiometer to white balance and calibrate the camera. It reduced the contamination within the two channels (Red and NIR) and converted the digital numbers (DN) of the camera into reflectance values for the computation of the vegetation indices. It was great!

It sounds great! So you hacked the camera, tested it, and got good results. What’s next?

I’m trying to understand how to bring it to farms. I’ve studied the option of attaching it to solar heated balloons to have a cheap and sustainable way to get the camera flying and collect images. That is my next prototype to test!

Suman is the living evidence that by leveraging the information we have, we can actually create a positive impact in our community, even in situations where the surrounding environment is facing huge challenges.

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Chiara is fascinated by food as a means to impact bodies, minds, and environment. She has studied international business in three different countries, and is an alumni of the Food Innovation Program and US Director at the Future Food Institute.

Based in California, she is also a Research Scholar at Food Science and Technology at UC Davis, working on building the first comprehensive Internet of Food to enable food care through food systems semantics. She is a selected member of Barilla Center Food Nutrition Foundation, a Research Affiliate at Institute For The Future, Board Member at Maker Faire and selected member of the Global Shapers, a young global network of innovators promoted by the World Economic Forum.

She is passionate about social entrepreneurship and impact investing, and aims to leave her mark on society.

View more articles by Chiara Cecchini


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.