Mini-infrared camera system promises better irrigation

A new camera system that combines a regular digital camera with a miniature infrared camera could provide a cost-effective way to monitor crop temperatures and help irrigate crops.

The Multi-band System for Imaging of a Crop Canopy, which is still under development, will be able to provide both temperature data and clear images. Photo: Supplied

A plant’s temperature can serve as an early warning sign of an underwatered and stressed plant, which makes monitoring crop temperatures a priority for many farmers.

Infrared cameras can detect heat and convert it into an image, but are large and expensive, making them impractical for most farmers.

Infrared sensors are less expensive; however, they cannot provide images, which makes accurate monitoring difficult for medium and large lands.

Now, researchers from the University of Missouri (MU) and the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture have developed a way to provide precise, visual crop temperature data at a lower cost.

Combining a regular digital camera with a miniature infrared camera, the Multi-band System for Imaging of a Crop Canopy can supply both temperature data and detailed images, giving farmers a vast amount of information about their crops.

“Using an infrared camera to monitor crop temperature can be tricky because it’s difficult to differentiate between the plants and background elements like soil or shade,” says Ken Sudduth, a USDA agricultural engineer and adjunct professor of bioengineering at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources in a statement.

“By augmenting a miniature infrared camera with a digital camera, we created a system that can examine crop temperatures with great detail and accuracy.”

Two images
The cameras produce two images of the same area: a detailed photograph and an infrared image. This allows farmers to identify problem areas from the digital camera images and analyse them with infrared images that map temperature to light intensity.

Coupled with an algorithm that automatically filters soil, shade and other non-plant presences from the images, the camera system allows farmers to irrigate their crops according to the needs of individual plants. This maximises yield and optimises water use without requiring the purchase of more expensive infrared cameras.

Affordable precision
“Medium-scale farmers have big fields, but they don’t always have the funds for expensive monitoring equipment,” says Sudduth.

“Our system allows for precision monitoring over a large area at a more manageable cost. That’s good for farmers, who can earn a bigger profit, and it’s good for everyone who depends on their crops.”

The system needs fine-tuning before it can be commercialised and sold to farmers, and future iterations could incorporate drones for increased versatility.

Email Austin Fitzgerald at fitzgeraldac@missouri.edu.