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Nasa technology can detect plant diseases invisible to the human eye

New research shows how airborne Nasa technology can provide early warnings about certain plant diseases

In a new study, Nasa technology was used to save grapevines from an expensive disease.
In a new study, Nasa technology was used to save grapevines from an expensive disease. (REUTERS)

Globally, plant diseases destroy about 15 to 30% of global harvests every year. These diseases include moulds, root-rotting bacteria, and viruses. Early detection can make it possible to save crops from damage, especially in a world that’s facing food shortages, according to the US space agency Nasa. 

A new study by scientists shows how Nasa technology can save crops from plant diseases before the symptoms are visible to the human eye.

The new study was conducted in collaboration between researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California and Cornell University. Using an airborne science instrument developed at Nasa JPL, researchers found that they can accurately spot the hidden signs of a grape disease that costs crop damage worth billions of dollars annually in California. The remote sensing technique could help ground-based monitoring for other crops too, according to a Nasa statement. 

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In two new studies, researchers detected a viral disease called GLRaV-3 (grapevine leafroll-associated virus complex 3). Primarily spread by insects, it affects crops and fruits. This disease is usually identified by manually examining every grapevine and through expensive molecular testing.

The research team used machine learning and Nasa’s Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG) to detect the disease. As the Nasa statement explains, the instrument’s optical sensor, which records the interaction of sunlight with chemical bonds, measures and monitors wildfires, greenhouse gases, and air pollution linked with volcanic eruptions. In the case of the grapevine leafroll virus, it can take about a year before visible symptoms such as discolouration appear.

“Like humans, sick plants may not exhibit outward symptoms right away, making early detection the greatest challenge facing growers,” Katie Gold, senior author and plant pathologist, said in Nasa's statement.

Using the AVIRIS-NG, the researchers could detect differences between non-infected and infected vines before and after they started showing symptoms, with the best-performing models achieving 87% accuracy. Successful early detection could help grape growers intervene early and save the crop.

In a complementary paper, the researchers said the case study shows the potential of airborne technologies. For instance, Nasa’s upcoming Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) mission might be able that help in agricultural decision-making globally, a Nasa statement explains.

With the increasing dominance of artificial intelligence (AI), new research is also focusing on how it can be used in agriculture. One of the technologies mentioned in the 'Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2023' report by the World Economic Forum, released in collaboration with Frontiers in June, was wearable plant sensors. These micro-sized needle sensors embedded in plants could help record data to improve plant health and increase agricultural productivity, the report adds. These devices can record temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels to help monitor crop yields, reduce water use and warn about early signs of diseases.

In 2021, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi, developed a computational model based on AI for automated disease detection in potato crops using photos of its leaves.

Also read: Plant sensors to AI in healthcare: emerging technologies to watch

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